For the sixth time in school history, Iowa football is off to a 7-0 start. That's good! While we wait for the rest of this season to unfold, let's take a look back at those previous 7-0 starts.
The oft-cited stat since Iowa's win over Northwestern on Saturday is that this is the 5th time that Iowa has started a season 7-0, but it turns out that's not entirely true. Coached by Alden Knipe (whose .711 winning percentage is the third-best ever among Iowa coaches and the best for any who stayed longer than three years), Iowa raced out to a 7-0 start in 1900 before tying Northwestern 5-5 in their final game of the season to finish 7-0-1. The 5 points they conceded versus Northwestern were almost half of the total points that they conceded for the entire season (12). Iowa outscored their opponents 311-12 that season and claimed a share of the Big Ten (or Big 9, to be precise) championship that season (Iowa went 2-0-1 in league play while Minnesota went 3-0-1; alas, they didn't play each other to determine One True Champion). Iowa's schedule that year had a heavy state of Iowa flavor -- they played Upper Iowa, Northern Iowa, Simpson, Drake, and Grinnell. They only left the state to play at Northwestern and Michigan.
(Iowa also went 9-0-1 under Knipe in 1899, but tied Chicago in the third game of the season, so they were never truly 7-0 during that season.)
This is the team more commonly cited as the first Iowa team to to begin the season 7-0. Led by Howard Jones, the greatest Iowa coach no one ever talks about (likely because his tenure was nearly a century ago), the 1921 Iowa team featured some names that should be familiar to Iowa fans: quarterback Aubrey Devine, tackle Duke Slater, and maybe All-America defensive end Lester Belding. Devine and Slater are all-time greats, members of the College Football Hall of Fame, and their names adorn the Wall of Honor at Kinnick Stadium. Devine was essentially proto-Nile Kinnick: a multi-purpose weapon who could run, pass, punt, and do kicking of any sort (quick-kicking, place-kicking, and drop-kicking). Devine famously kicked the game-winning field goal as Iowa beat Notre Dame 10-7 in the second game of the 1921 season, ending the Irish's 20-game winning streak. Slater was a trailblazer (one of the first prominent black players of his era) and one of the best tackles Iowa's ever had; he remained such a fixture at Iowa even after graduation that Slater Hall was eventually named after him. (Another member of the team, fullback Gordon Locke, was also elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.)
Iowa opened the 1921 season with a 52-14 win over Knox, then grabbed the aforementioned 10-7 win over Notre Dame, before running the table in the Big Ten (5-0) that season, edging out Chicago and Ohio State (both 4-1) to claim a Big Ten championship (their first since... 1900). The college football season was a much different beast in those days -- Iowa played just a 7-game season and it was all packed into October and November (with a bye week). That's a far cry from today -- Iowa could end up playing a 15-game (!) season if everything goes as perfectly as possible.
After their 7-0 season Iowa was invited to play 9-0 Cal, the defending national champions, in the Rose Bowl. What a game that might have been. Alas, the Big Ten barred its members from participating in bowl games until the mid-40s, so Iowa was forced to decline the invitation. (1921 BHGP would have said horsefeathers to that idea and declared the Big Ten all wet.) Cal had to settle for a game with Washington & Jefferson instead, a scintillating 0-0 tie.
A year later Iowa picked up right where they left off in 1921, zipping to another 7-0 start (and finish, since it was once again a 7-game season). Iowa again got things started with a blowout win over Knox (61-0), before following that up with a 6-0 win over Yale (coached by Tad Jones, the younger brother of Iowa coach Howard Jones) in New Haven, the first time Yale had ever lost to a team from the "west" in their history. Iowa was more dominant overall than they had been in 1921 (outscoring opponents 208-33), but also suffered a few close close scrapes -- they beat Illinois just 8-7 (the winning score came via safety!) and edged Ohio State 12-9.
1922 was also part of Iowa's longest-ever winning streak, a 20-game undefeated stretch from November 6, 1920 to October 20, 1923. The 1922 team lacked the starpower of the previous team -- Devine, Slater, and Belding all graduated in the spring of '22, prior to the '22 season. Gordon Locke was the main holdover from the previous year's undefeated team, and he and the reconstituted Iowa team were enough to lead the Hawkeyes to another undefeated season. Iowa was forced to share the Big Ten title in 1922 (Iowa went 5-0, while Michigan went 4-0 and Chicago went 4-0-1) and were again denied a potential bowl game trip due to the Big Ten's ban on postseason play.
Despite going 7-0 in 1921 and 1922, Iowa didn't win a national championship for either campaign, which is a little frustrating. Part of the problem is that pre-1936 national championships are a strange animal to begin with -- the AP Poll didn't get started until 1936; the creation of that poll is what led to more formally recognized national champions. Still, at least one scholar has retroactively awarded Iowa a national title for the 1921 season.
Incidentally, the 1921-1922 Iowa teams were the squads that Iowa was celebrating when they wore throwback uniforms for the 2012 game against Iowa State. That game was a miserable experience, so you're forgiven for forgetting it (or blocking it from your memory). It's a shame that Iowa wasn't able to play better to commemorate those excellent 1921 and 1922 teams.
Iowa football went more or less dormant for several years (or decades) after the Howard Jones-led teams of the early '20s. Even the great Nile Kinnick-led Ironman squad of 1939 only managed to go 6-1-1. Hawkeye football enjoyed a renaissance in the late '50s under Forest Evashevski, but even Forest wasn't able to get Iowa to 7-0 during his storied tenure. His teams claimed two Big Ten championships (1956, 1958) and Iowa's lone national championship (1958), but his best-ever starts were a 6-0 start in 1960 and 6-0-1 starts in 1957 and 1958. (Ohio State handed Iowa their first -- and only -- losses in both '57 and '58, which is your daily reminder that Ohio State is the devil and always has been.)
Hawkeye fans would have to wait until 1985 -- some 63 years since the last 7-0 start! -- before seeing its like again. That '85 team was, of course, one of the greatest in the history of the program. Fresh off a 55-17 demolition of Texas in the Freedom Bowl the year before, Iowa hit the ground running in '85, blasting Drake, Northern Illinois, and Iowa State by a combined score of 163-23 and ascended to the #1 ranking in the polls for the second-time ever (after 1960). Then came a visit from Michigan State and arguably the second-most famous play of the 1985 season:
Iowa followed that up with a win over Wisconsin and then the heavyweight fight of the season: #1 Iowa versus #2 Michigan. The 30th anniversary of that game -- and Rob Houghtlin's unforgettable game-winning kick -- was just two days ago, as we noted earlier this week. Iowa then pushed their record to 7-0 with a 49-10 bludgeoning of Northwestern (weird but true: In four of the six seasons where Iowa has started the year 7-0, the 7th win of the season came against Northwestern -- 1921, 1922, 1985, and 2015). Then of course it all came crashing down on a miserable trip to Columbus to face Ohio State. (Once again: the devil, forever and always.)
Iowa rebounded to win their final three regular season games (including a 59-0 shellacking of Illinois just a week after the Ohio State heartbreak), before losing to UCLA in a bitterly-remembered Rose Bowl. There are few seasons in Iowa history that engender as many "what if" scenarios as 1985. Even so, it was still Iowa's last outright Big Ten championship and a year where Iowa scaled heights that they've rarely scaled (before or since).
Iowa's most recent 7-0 start (until this year) happened six years ago in one of the wildest and most memorable seasons in Iowa history. Seriously: Adrian Clayborn blocked a punt and returned it for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter against Penn State and that was probably only the fourth-most crazy ending to an Iowa game that year. That was the year that began with Iowa blocking not one, but two potential game-winning field goals to spoil an upset bid from UNI and ended with the Iowa defense putting on a master class in stifling Georgia Tech's vaunted triple option offensive attack. In-between Iowa demolished Iowa State behind a hat trick of interceptions from Tyler Sash, beat top-five Penn State in the rain thanks to the aforementioned blocked punt by Clayborn, edged Michigan in a thriller under the lights, beat Michigan State on a walk-off touchdown pass ("7 got 6"), staged a crazy rally over Indiana (that featured one of the most bizarre Iowa plays ever, the pinball pick-six returned by Sash), nearly upset Ohio State in the Horseshoe to win the Big Ten, and blanked Minnesota for the second straight year.
Iowa actually ran out to a 9-0 start in 2009 (the best start in program history) before playing Northwestern in the tenth game of the season, a game best (only?) remembered for THE WOOTENOCALYPSE. That loss ended Iowa's perfect start (and their 14-game winning streak overall); Iowa lost again the following week in the aforementioned heartbreaker in Columbus. Iowa still rebounded for a 10-win regular season and a trip to the Orange Bowl, a trip that was capped off with Iowa's biggest bowl win in 50 years.
And then we come to this year. After last Saturday's oh-so-satisfying beatdown of Northwestern, Iowa once again sits at 7-0. The path here has already featured a memorable game-winning field goal, a hold-your-breath defensive stand, and some of the best individual performances by Iowa players in years. There's no telling what the future holds, but if history is any sort of guide, it should be exciting, memorable, and the sort of year that we'll still be talking about a long time from now.