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Here's the Thing: Michigan

My, how times have changed.

There was a time where Iowa-Michigan was one of the four to five pivotal games in the Big Ten title race.  In fact, you don't even need to go back that far to find it.  In 2005, Michigan beat Iowa in overtime at Kinnick on Jason Avant's greatest day ever to snap Iowa's three-year home winning streak.  Both of those teams finished 7-5 (5-3) and went off to mid-level bowl games.  In five of the six meetings prior to that year, the winner of Iowa-Michigan won at least a share of the Big Ten title.  In Michigan's 1997 national championship season, Iowa came closer than anyone -- closer than Ohio State, closer than Notre Dame, closer than Wisconsin and Penn State and the Pac-10 champion Washington State Cougars -- to beating the Wolverines, and in Ann Arbor nonetheless (it's the contention of more than a few Iowa fans that that game, and the subsequent fade to the finish, that directly led to Hayden Fry's retirement).  Iowa's 2002 beatdown of UM -- again, in Ann Arbor -- was Kirk Ferentz's coming out party.  The 2006 game was both the direct cause for Iowa's shocking loss to Indiana one week earlier and the trigger for that team's complete meltdown.  This is to say nothing for those 80's encounters between Bo and Hayden, the Game of the Century of 1985, the 1981 win that gave eventually gave Iowa its first Rose Bowl in 23 years.  Iowa-Michigan is an event, and has been for 30 years.

Even the Rodriguez-era games felt like they had grander meaning.  In 2009, Big Blue was 4-1, one week removed from an overtime loss to Sparty.  Iowa had eked through September at 5-0, with a program-changing win in Happy Valley.  Iowa built a lead, and Michigan came roaring back behind freshman backup quarterback Denard Robinson.  Eventually, Robinson's arm and inexperience got the better of him, as a Brett Greenwood interception effectively ended the final Michigan opportunity.  It wasn't that Iowa's two-point lead served notice to the rest of the conference that it would be a contender -- that would wait for the next week -- as much as it dealt a death blow to Michigan's already-dimmed hopes of a rebound.  By 2010, the knives were out for Rodriguez when Iowa flattened Michigan at the Big House, again on the heels of a Wolverine loss to Michigan State, this one nowhere near as close as the ten-point margin of victory indicated.  Michigan again imploded after the loss, although this was both expected and sad.  It's not that I take pity on Michigan.  It's that, for the first time in as long as I can remember, an Iowa win over UM was predictable.  The game had become like any other, a win greeted with the same muted looks to the next week normally reserved for Purdue and Michigan State.

Cut to today, and Iowa enters its near-annual date with Michigan as vulnerable as it's been in a decade.  The 2001 team dropped a heartbreaking late October home game to a one-loss Michigan team; a loss the next week at Wisconsin left the Hawkeyes at .500 and scrapping for a bowl berth.  I watched 2001 Iowa-Michigan this offseason, mostly because I don't remember any of that game (it was my 21st birthday), and it wasn't until I sat down to write this that the parallels struck.  This team looks a lot like that team, still unsure of itself, still trying to find a cohesive strategy on both sides of the ball, still trying to find a route to six wins and a ticket somewhere other than Iowa City in December.  That team is now celebrated as a return to form, but at the time there were catcalls for quarterback changes and defensive blunders and the kinds of mistakes you see from a young football team.  This one has been beaten to a pulp over the course of the last five days (and mea culpa, I'm probably more at fault for that than anyone), probably worse than 2001 ever was, but for the same reasons.

Our podcast guest Brian Cook has always said that, historically, Iowa is a 7-to-8 win kind of program, and that remains true.  There will be Iowa teams full of seasoned veterans and luck that run to double-digit wins, and there will be teams like this one, teams that don't know what it is they are or what they are doing, even into November.  There will be Iowa teams that can string together a few wins, and there are teams that will be lucky just to string together a few plays.  The frustrating thing about 2010 was that it was supposed to be one of those double-digit teams and regressed as the weather and the chances of success faded.  There was a pattern, though, and because of that we thought there was a cause.  

The 2011 Iowa Hawkeyes have us in hysterics precisely because there is no pattern.  Against Iowa State, it was the defensive line's inability to contain Steele Jantz.  Against Pitt, it was reliance on a tentative halfback in the running game.  Against Penn State, it was the offensive line's inability to handle unexpected pressure.  Against Minnesota, it was lack of execution in the Gophers' half of the field on both sides of the ball.  These things are not signs of a problem with anything in particular.  They are not indicative of any single issue.  They still come with an L in the ledger, though, and so we load up the shotgun and scatter shot at everything.

The good teams find it in November.  The 2001 team found it, just in time to get wins over Northwestern and Minnesota to get bowl eligible; it then built on it for a bowl win over Texas Tech.  The 2006 and 2007 teams, beset with problems of leadership and general malaise, never found it and collapsed as a result.  The 2008 Hawkeyes lost over and over and over again before finding it in a win over then-undefeated Penn State.  And while they've lost three times in excruciating fashion, in two cases to inferior opposition, this 2011 team feels like 2001 and 2008.  It's not a group of seniors playing out the string on a disappointing campaign.  There's youth here, and there's some talented youth, and direction is coming.  There's Vandenberg, who is second in the conference in passing efficiency when he remains upright.  There's Marcus Coker, who broke through for about the fifth time this calendar year last week.  There's C.J. Fiedorowicz at tight end (the Hawkeye Insider player of the week despite the fact that he might not play at all) (/laughs like Ted DiBiase), looking like he might be ready to take that coveted position for good.  There's James Morris, hobbled but fighting, at linebacker, and there's Hitchens and Kirksey on the other side, playing new positions just to make up for the combination of attrition and Denard.  There is youth, and there is confusion (just ask Tanner Miller).  But there is also drive here, and there is now a purpose in their heads, and (we hope) a fire in their stomachs, and a wall at their backs.

Michigan has run at will this year against anyone not named Michigan State.  They have sent Denard off tackle, and then they've sent one of their cadre of backs the other direction, and when you have that down they've chucked it deep and called it a punt.  Their defense has given up fewer points than every FBS team but Alabama, LSU, Penn State, Boise State, and Central Florida.  They are a juggernaut in the Bo/Lloyd mold, if not necessarily in accordance with Bo and Lloyd's tendencies.  They are as formidable an opponent as Iowa's faced this season, and they have their eyes on that prize that used to be up for grabs in every meeting between these two teams: A Big Ten championship.

But it's November.  Big Blue waits.  The good teams find it now.