In the rules of logic, there are conditions necessary and conditions sufficient. In the cupcake game, there are conditions necessary, not conditions sufficient.
We can watch Saturday's game with Tennessee Tech and know little to nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of 2011 Iowa. Take, for instance, the 2005 game with Ball State, where the Hawkeyes put up 49 unanswered first half points. Freshman tailback Shonn Greene ran for 118 yards, quarterbacks Drew Tate and Jason Manson combined to go 18/19 passing for 191 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and the defense held BSU to 144 yards of total offense on 11/23 passing. Coming out of that opener, every fan thought the Iowa juggernaut of 2002-2004 had returned for its fourth year of dominance. The next week, Iowa lost to Iowa State 23-3 as Tate went down injured, Manson struggled mightily, and the defense was shredded for 169 yards rushing. That team finished a disappointing 7-5. In the Ball State game, we saw no evidence of the strengths of that Iowa team, and the weaknesses were hidden by the opposition's inability to exploit them. When you're playing the cupcake, everything that isn't broken, and most of what is, looks unstoppable.
In 2006, Iowa opened the season with a 41-7 win over Montana. While the final score makes the game look like a rout, the day itself was a struggle. With 5 minutes left in the third quarter, Iowa's lead was just 17-7. Drew Tate was already fighting with his new corps of receivers, throwing for just 223 on 15/28 passing, plagued by drops, and targeting halfbacks far more than usual. While the defense completely shut down Montana's running game, wideout Eric Allen caught six passes for 63 yards despite being the obvious top target of the Iowa secondary. Most importantly for Iowa, the offensive line had trouble opening running lanes and protecting Tate. Again, we didn't know anything about the strengths of that Iowa team after the game. We did, however, get insight into its weaknesses. The inability of our receivers to catch a pass would lead to losses against Indiana and Wisconsin (Tate went a putrid 10/31 for 170 yards against the Badgers). The inability of our line to open holes in the running game shut down the offense in losses at Michigan and against Northwestern. The combination of the two led to six losses in the final seven games, as Iowa limped to the finish. If you can't do it against Montana, you won't do it against Minnesota.
The much-maligned 2009 Northern Iowa game was maybe most effective at identifying weaknesses, but again did little to prove the team's strengths. Lost in the story of double blocked field goals was that Adam Robinson could muster just 63 yards, and the offense as a whole 87 yards, rushing, as UNI's defensive tackles owned the inside of Iowa's line. On the other side of the ball, Pat Grace threw for 270 from the Panthers' spread attack, mostly by picking on freshman cornerback Greg Castillo. Iowa made adjustments in the coming weeks, changing out both guards, rotating in Brandon Wegher at halfback, and jettisoning the aforementioned Castillo (and, maybe more importantly, not facing another competent pass-first spread offense until Northwestern in November), but that team as constituted on opening week had problems that needed to be addressed despite the win.
In last year's cupcake game, a 37-7 demolition of Eastern Illinois, there was little cause for concern. Adam Robinson looked more than capable of taking the lion's share of carries in the absence of Jewel Hampton and Brandon Wegher, Ricky Stanzi went 18/23 for 229 and didn't throw any debilitating interceptions, and the defense held EIU to 157 yards of total offense and less than 100 yards passing. The weakness, though, lied in EIU's only score of the day, as the punt coverage team turned its back on a snap to the upback, a fake punt that went for 36 yards and set up a bomb lobbed over the heads of an exhausted defense on the next snap. Six weeks later, with the Big Ten title still very much in play, Bret Bielema went back to the same well with nearly identical results. The weakness was evident even then.
There are conditions necessary to win and conditions sufficient to win, and only one is on full display in a game like this. If there is a problem, if the receivers have cloven hooves for hands or the offensive line is leaking like a colander or the pass rush couldn't get to the quarterback if you replaced the opposing line with a blocking sled, it will be visible against Tennessee Tech. If a condition necessary to success is not met, it will be seen by even our less-than-trained eyes. If you struggle against the Golden Eagles or the Golden Flashes, you have to either go back to the drawing board or lose against the Wolverines and Cornhuskers. Yet, by saying that conditions necessary must be met in order to keep the door open for future successes, conditions sufficient -- those which, when met, guarantee victory -- won't be on display here. Vandenberg could throw for 400 tomorrow, Marcus Coker could break three long touchdowns, and the defense could rack up a handful of sacks and keep Tennessee Tech in the red and it wouldn't be proof of anything beyond the fact that the Iowa Hawkeyes of the Big Ten Conference were playing a team that barely went .500 in I-AA last season and lost its last four games against I-A opposition by a total of 193-17. Do not fall into the trap of finding conditions sufficient to be sufficiently satisfied, of extrapolating future results against better opposition from tomorrow. The practice is futile.
As for conditions necessary, it begins, and likely ends, in the trenches. If the offensive line can't get a consistent push (especially if the interior of the line can't open a running lane) or leaves Vandenberg vulnerable to the blitz, it's cause for concern. If the newfangled defensive line rotation looks less like a wave of humanity and more like a three-ring circus, we might well jump off a bridge. It is here that the success or failure of the 2011 campaign will almost certainly be built.