"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
-- Hebrews 11:1
"10 wins LOL"
-- Your humble author, August 2015
The last five years of Iowa football had made me cynical. It had scarred me. It had beaten me down.
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical: The implosion of 2010, the (largely unsubstantiated) drug rumors, the rhabdo scandal, the complete disaster of 2012, last season's November meltdown. The close losses to Big Ten powerhouses turned into close losses to MAC also-rans, turned into big losses to Big Ten also-rans. Even the good season in that five-year stretch, 2013's eight-win campaign, was basically just Iowa beating every team it should have beaten and losing to every team it should have lost to. It was pleasantly forgettable. It seemed as if "pleasantly forgettable" had become the ceiling of this program, and that lack of payoff bred skepticism.
I've been doing this for ten seasons now, and secularism among college football fans in general has grown exponentially over that time. The introduction of analytics and the expansion of recruiting coverage has effectively eliminated any belief in the possibility that a whole team can be greater than the sum of its parts. The Iowa football program was awash in also-ran recruits performing at or below expectations, because Rivals and Football Outsiders had told us so. With a historical record as mediocre as that of the Hawkeyes' last five seasons, a coach seemingly unwilling to embrace any sort of serious change, and individual parts so disregarded by everyone else, there was no need to play another seven-win season. The new quarterback didn't matter, because who else had wanted C.J. Beathard, a guy who couldn't even beat out Jake Rudock for the job? The introduction of a running game coordinator was insignificant, because Iowa's halfbacks were two-star castoffs, its line was full of walk-ons, and Kirk Ferentz was still going to run outside zone ad infinitum. Iowa was losing an Outland Trophy winner at left tackle with no serious replacement, two multiple-year starters at defensive tackle who were never really challenged by the players beneath them on the depth chart, and a middle linebacker talked about as the linchpin of last year's mediocre defense. The few parts worthy of mention were gone, and the replacements weren't there.
I had lost faith in this program, and so I ignored the evidence of things not seen. I had lost faith, and so I didn't pay much attention to Kirk Ferentz's then-bizarre January press conference where he named Beathard as the starter, admitted his shortcomings and recommitted to coaching. I had lost faith, and so I didn't see the work done by this team in the offseason, the re-emphasis on details missing for so long. I had lost faith, and so I didn't see the trips that this staff made to other programs during the offseason, scouting less for schematics than process, or the changes in the day-to-day schedule within the program. I had lost faith, and so my eyebrow raised only slightly when Austin Blythe told reporters that he didn't come to Iowa to go 6-6, or when Jordan Lomax and C.J. Beathard lamented last year's leadership and promised better.
I had lost faith, and so I looked at the roster on August 31, counted up stars, cursed another year of Ferentzball, and prepared for a season of Bret Bielema love letters. I no longer believed that leadership, or a quarterback change, or better coaching could fix this. I no longer believed that a whole could be greater than the sum of its parts, because the evidence had passed in front of my eyes during the last five seasons.
I had lost faith. And you've got to have faith.
I was a senior at Iowa in 2002, the last time that Iowa had been this kind of program, an out-of-nowhere contender that was not winning with magic (like 2004) or end-game moxie (like 2009), but with pure, balanced dominance on both sides of the ball. I was there when Brad Banks was doing the things that C.J. Beathard did this year, when Fred Russell and Jermelle Lewis were playing the parts of Iowa's trio of halfbacks, when Iowa's defense wasn't necessarily spectacular but certainly good enough when paired with an efficient offense. There was a different feel to that team than its successors, a confidence that spilled from the field into the stands and across Melrose Avenue and into the ether and then reverberated back to midfield, a confidence that convinced everyone watching that Iowa was going to win every game. It was palpable in ways that it was not after early Big Ten losses in 2003 and 2004 or the UNI near-miss in 2009.
I didn't think I would feel it ever again, and then I went to the Big Ten Championship Game and found tens of thousands of Iowa fans who felt the same thing. And when Tevaun Smith hauled in that touchdown, when Iowa was maybe two defensive stops away from going to the College Football Playoff, when a neutral site was quite literally shaking from the outward expression that feeling...
It was only then that the feeling became something else. That the confidence turned into a true appreciation for what this team, both its coaches and players, had accomplished. This was different than 2002. This was the 2002 team had it gotten its chance against Ohio State. For those who had believed all along, this was faith rewarded.
For those who hadn't, this was faith reborn.
In pro sports, you cheer for laundry. For the most part, your chosen team's players are there by happenstance, as the result of a business transaction. College sports are different. The overhype of recruiting ironically clouds the fact that these players make the choice to play for us because they want to live and learn and grow in that place, and that many of us made the same choice to live and learn and grow at that place at another time in our lives. It's why college fans are the most passionate in the whole damn world, and it's why I write about this team as much as I do.
But there's another reason why college football is the best game in the world. The quirkiness of college football stands in stark opposition to its pro counterpart. There is a higher margin for error, and there's individual growth that cannot be measured until after the fact. It's how teams can bounce from the middle of the pack to the top of the polls, a mix of growth and luck that turns a losing record on its head.
And if you're going to be a fan of this game, you've got to have faith that your guys are going to work harder and grow more in that period of time you can't see than everyone else, and that God will smile on you and kick that fumble into your linebacker's hands. It's all about faith, the substance of those things you hoped for in the doldrums of June, the evidence of those things not seen.
And so, as this insane, absurd, wonderful, miraculous season comes to a close, all I can say is that I have never been happier to be wrong. I have faith again, and I have this team to thank.