It seems like just yesterday, we were anxious for the college football season to start. The days were long and hot and we were willing to turn on any sort of coverage we could get. We lapped up season previews, irrelevant rankings and incessant talking head opining on everything from playoff contenders to golden boys returning their alma mater to the promised land.
We wake up this Monday morning and that’s all gone. For many fans across the country, the season is officially over. The days are shorter and colder. Those of us in Eastern Iowa are waking up to several inches of snow. We’ve watched 13 weeks of football. By now, we’re sick of the prognostications and opinions.
We’ve ridden this roller coaster all season and seen the highs of being ranked as high as 16th in the college football playoff rankings, as well as the lows of losing three straight to squander away any hopes of a Big Ten Championship Game appearance. That comes with what Iowa fans have come to know as the typical emotions of football season: hope and optimism, mixed with anxiety and worry, followed by frustration and disappointment.
Back in late September, most of us were cautiously optimistic about the season. Nobody really expected this team to win the West, but 8-9 wins seemed likely with the schedule in front of them. Coming out of the non-conference slate unbeaten, things were looking good. A fair number of fans and prognosticators picked Iowa to slip up against Iowa State. The win there put the Hawkeyes on or ahead of schedule for most pre-season picks. What was more, the defense looked like it could be one of the best in the Ferentz era - a far cry from the dropoff most expected after losing all three linebackers and a pair of All-Americans in Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson.
The date with Wisconsin seemed like an opportunity to steal a game and possibly turn the season from solid to great. Alas, that opportunity slipped through Iowa’s fingertips in what would prove to be foreshadowing for the remainder of the year. The Badgers were not nearly as good as expected, but the Hawkeyes couldn’t capitalize.
Despite the disappointment, things were still on track. The defense still looked very good, if only the offense could pick things up a bit.
Then came the mountainous climb to the top of the roller coaster. Just when fans were calling for more firepower on offense, Brian Ferentz delivered with 48 and 42 points in back-to-back weeks. Things culminated with a third straight win where Iowa put up 23 in gusty conditions while the defense pitched a shutout.
This was peak Iowa fandom. The Hawkeyes were 6-1. There were cracks in Wisconsin’s armor and it was starting to look like just maybe the loss at home to the Badgers was an aberration. Expectations had been elevated as we saw glimpses of the capabilities of this team on both sides of the ball. We had hope and optimism, yet we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, we’re just Iowa.
Of course, the other shoe did drop. Then it promptly kicked us collectively in the groin. The Hawkeyes rattled off three consecutive losses in maddening fashion.
Despite getting all the bounces early to surge out to a 12-0 lead on Penn State, the defense gave up a number of big plays while the offense looked entirely lost en route to a soul crushing loss capped off by a dumbfounding interception on the goaline with a chance to take the lead late in the 4th.
As frustrating as that was for fans, all hope was not lost. Iowa still had a shot at the West if they could just do what we all expected them to: beat Purdue and Northwestern. They of course, could not.
Instead, with the offense finally humming again, the defense gave up 38 against Purdue and the coaching staff opted to follow a statistical model requiring an advanced math degree rather than conventional wisdom in going for 2 early in the third quarter. Incredibly frustrating.
While all hope of a return to Indianapolis was not lost with the defeat in West Lafeyette, it came the following week as the offense not only forgot how to score points, they forgot who their All-American tight end was. In a game where the defense held eventual Big Ten West champion Northwestern to 14 points, Iowa managed only 10 points in a game where Noah Fant played just 9 snaps in the second half.
If the build up to the Penn State game was peak Iowa fandom, this was the valley. Even the staunchest of Ferentz apologies among us [quietly raises hand slowly] had some questions about the direction of the team. Some had questions about the direction of the program.
Just another season in Iowa football.
But because it was just another season in Iowa football, the misery of watching all those hopes and aspirations fade away was quickly followed up with the complete destruction of Illinois. Despite nobody watching, and even fewer people caring, all the pent up frustration was let out on the Fighting Illini as Iowa handed them the worst loss in program history, 63-0.
That brings us to this weekend, the final regular season game of the year.
Iowa fans had mostly checked out on the season. The win against Illinois was nice and all, but this season felt like a disappointment, despite largely coming in right in line with preseason predictions. Nebraska fans, on the other hand, were as confident in their 4-7 team winning the national title as if it were 1995.
The game itself played out much like the season leading up to it. Things looked pretty good early, but nothing was spectacular. Iowa sliced through the “blackshirt” defense like a hot knife through butter the day after Thanksgiving. Nebraska had little problem answering right back against what we consider to be a solid Iowa defense.
But then, just as Iowa seemed to get things rolling after the loss to Wisconsin early in the year, the Hawkeyes seemed to create some separation. After Nebraska cut the lead to 14-10, Iowa grabbed another touchdown on a Mekhi Sargent run, then held the Cornhuskers to a field goal (or gifted them a field goal if we want to go down that road) before half. The third quarter seemed to come and go with little action other than another Hawkeye touchdown and things seemed like they were on track for what we’ve come to expect in this series: a runaway Iowa win.
From there, the groin kick ensued. The Hawkeye defense gave up a pair of Nebraska touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the offense failed to get points after going for it on fourth and 2 from the Nebraska 3 up 28-13 and missing the field goal on their next trip inside the redzone.
What had felt like another decisive victory against a team that so badly wants to be above Iowa they continue to act like this is not a rivalry game suddenly was a tie game with less than three and a half minutes left.
Just as the season returned from the brink to be largely what we would have expected, albeit slightly disappointing, so too did the game end the way most of us expected. Senior Miguel Recinos redeemed his earlier transgressions and nailed a game winner from roughly the same spot he had previously missed. Despite the snow that arrived yesterday, there was no Frost warning worth heeding on Friday in Iowa City.
And so the regular season ended, much as we would have expected during all those lengthy prognostications and predictions we lapped up back in August. Iowa finished with 8 wins for the third straight season (though last season took a bowl game to get to 8). There were highs and lows and opportunities missed. That much we’ve come to expect.
But at the end of the day, it was another good year. Despite not living up to the heightened expectations we built for ourselves midway through the year, this season comes in the midst of string of good years at Iowa. Over the last 5 seasons, only Wisconsin has won more games than the Hawkeyes in the West. Only Ohio State and Penn State have done so from the East.
During that span, every other program in the Big Ten has had a losing season. Every one. For all the ups and downs of the individual seasons, Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz continues to be incredibly steady and incredibly successful. The high points have been there. We are only 3 years removed from an undefeated regular season. But they have not been prolonged like the success at schools such as Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin, all of which have had at least back-to-back double-digit win seasons.
So we find ourselves wanting more, wanting that prolonged success. We do so, oftentimes, at the expense of taking for granted the success we have had. We have not had the big dips to offset the up years, much like we have not had the up years peak into the double digits with the frequency we would like.
We now enter the beginning of the cycle we just ended. The long offseason of prognostications and predictions has officially started. Despite not yet knowing which bowl game the Hawkeyes will play in, who they will play, or what the outcome is, we will begin examining the 2019 season. Who is departing? Who is returning? Who’s on the schedule?
There are a number of questions that we’ll answer from every angle between now and August 31, 2019. But I can assure you one certainty for next year: there will be ups and downs, the fanbase will cycle through optimism and hope to pessimism and frustration. At the end of it all, we will be looking at another good year of Iowa football. And we won’t appreciate it for what it is.
For now, embrace the prosperity we have enjoyed. Always strive for more, but not at the expense of taking for granted what we have. And what we have is a hell of a football program, not mired by controversy and led by a great leader of men.
Happy Monday. Enjoy the return from the long holiday. Be thankful for all you have and that we aren’t Nebraska, or Minnesota, or Illinois, or anyone else. And embrace the coming weeks. Soon college football will be gone again for several months.