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Are Rivalry Trophies Enough for 2019?

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Kirk Ferentz has had a run against rivals peter out against conference competition. Would a similar season maximize this season’s talent?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes have four trophy games every year. It’s the fourth most trophy games in college football as Minnesota, Missouri, and Notre Dame have five. Given conference realignments, though, it’s Iowa alone who play for something more one out of every three times they see the field in the regular season.

Factoring in trophies for the division, conference, and annual bowl game Iowa could clinch a trophy in half of their games.

Because of this, a 7-5 regular season could look completely different.

Season A: 28.3 PPG, 19.9 OPPG

Season B: 28.3 PPG, 24.0 OPPG

Season B’s (2014) defense was much worse they finished with the exact same record as Season A (2017). Through nine games, both teams sat at 6-3, too, and the case could be made the finish to 2017 is even more disappointing than 2014.

Comparing 7-5 Finishes

Game # 2014 2017
Game # 2014 2017
9 14-51 loss at Minnesota 55-24 win vs Ohio State
10 30-14 win at Illinois 14-38 loss at Wisconsin
11 24-26 loss vs Wisconsin 15-24 loss vs Purdue
12 34-37 loss vs Nebraska 56-24 win at Nebraska

Season 2014 with some “that’s football” and serve with a side of a bowl game blowout and there was nothing for Iowa fans to hang their hat on during the post-2014 offseason. Flip over to 2017, Iowa beat ISU (a loss in 2014) and Minnesota earlier in the season and finished the season with wins over Nebraska and Boston College for everything to be hunky-dory going into 2018.

In fact, one could argue that the 2017 team got less juice from the squeeze than 2014. Better defense, better skill players, higher in-season performance.

Through this lens, it puts last season into a different focus.

The three-game losing streak where Iowa lost by 12 total points have not been scrutinized this offseason like one might see from another fanbase. There were enough interesting in-game decisions to take Iowa from a tie for first in the West Division at kickoff of the Penn State game to no shot at the division when the clock hit 0:00 against Northwestern. For another team (or past iteration of Iowa!), the decisions would have been discussed ad nauseum. Yet Iowa added a blowout against Illinois to inflate their scoring above 2017’s and two trophies to put lipstick on the 9-4.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, there has been no “what if?” on last year. I mean, sheesh, Iowa had the best scoring defense and scoring offense in the Big Ten West yet finished 3 games behind the division winner. Iowa’s margin of victory was as good as Illinois’s was bad. Were we that distracted by the four trophies in Hansen to avoid the admittedly tough discussion on the other three which were there for the taking?

It would certainly make sense. The average Iowa fan does not interact daily with a Northwestern or Purdue diehard in the way that the conversations evolve in person or online with an Iowa State or Nebraska fan.

This is not to say the trophy games are not important. They certainly are. For Iowa to have a 10-win regular season, simple math dictates they need to win at least two of them. What it does mean is that keeping Hansen’s trophy case stocked should not simplify the discussion of whether Iowa is achieving their ceiling. After all, Northwestern has as many 10-win seasons in 7 years (3) as Iowa does in the last 15.

sports-ref.com

At a macro level, 10 wins is not the super lofty goal it once was. in 1988, just 16 teams had 10-win seasons out of 105 (15.2%) and the five-year average from ‘88-’92 was 12.8%. There were 25 10-win teams last year (19.2%) with a five-year average of 20.0%. 10 wins is not necessarily a prerequisite for entry into the top 25, but for Iowa to demonstrate they are a top 25 program, 10-win seasons should happen more often.

Consider Iowa’s schedule since 2014:

1) five games against teams at (or bouncing back from) their program’s “rock bottom” (Illinois, Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue);

2) two games against non-P5 teams; and

3) lucky draw of cross-divisional opponents (they’ve played Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State five times in five seasons)

Yet Iowa has won 7, 12, 8, 8, and 9 games with only two bowl wins. What happens as these teams get better?

Plus, a bowl game does not demonstrate a team’s success as it once did. In 1988, there were just 17 bowl games where 32.4% of teams participated. Because there was no playoff system, one could argue four of them mattered in terms of determining how 1988 might be remembered. Now, there are 39 bowls where 58.5% of all FBS teams participate. And the playoff shuts off “mattering” from eight teams to four. Obviously I don’t think Iowa can or will be a team which matters consistently in January, but making a bowl game does not say a team is good so much as missing one screams that the team is bad.

What does it mean for next year?

Since 2014, Iowa has captured four-game winning streaks over Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Even though they’ve lost three in a row against Wisconsin, the 13-3 record is the best four-year span since 2002-2005, when the Hawks went 10-2. Iowa has only had a five-game winning streak against any one of these teams just once: 2001-2005 against Minnesota.

Since Iowa’s rivals are getting better, their improvement will make another loss to Northwestern or Purdue untenable if the annual trajectory of 7-8 regular season wins is to continue. Plus with Iowa’s talent level and a senior quarterback, a 3-1 record with just Minnesota at home should mean a similarly good record when nothing more is at stake.

So is there a point where the trophies are not enough?

With 20 years at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz, I think we’ve already reached it.