The cancellation of the Music City Bowl ended Iowa’s 2020 football season far earlier than anyone anticipated, and fans, players, and coaches are understandably craving closure to one of the strangest years in program history. When the Hawkeyes made their victorious exit from Kinnick Stadium on December 12, they did so believing they would still have two games left to prove how far the team had come since its abysmal 0-2 start to the season. Now that Iowa’s matchups against both Michigan and Missouri have been cancelled due to coronavirus outbreaks among the ranks of its would-be opponents, how should fans remember this Hawkeye team which played fewer games than any Iowa squad since 1963?
It’s difficult to remember an Iowa football team that had to endure more emotional turmoil over the course of a single calendar year than the 2020 squad. The Hawkeyes have had three different schedules in 2020, had their spring and fall practices disrupted by the outbreak of a global pandemic, and lost several players from their 10-win 2019 squad to transfer, the NFL Draft, and COVID-related opt-outs. Yet all of these stories were seemingly eclipsed this summer after a firestorm of controversy emerged around the program’s treatment of African American players which resulted in national scrutiny, the ousting of longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, an investigation into the team by the Husch Blackwell law firm, and tearful promises from Kirk Ferentz and Gary Barta to improve the program going forward. Just when it appeared the story was fading from public consciousness, a group of former Hawkeye players announced their intent to file suit against the university for racial discrimination just days before the season opener, again forcing the current players to confront the perceived sins of the team’s past.
Each of these unprecedented new challenges came with several difficult questions. Could the program make the changes necessary to help its black student athletes reach their full potential? Would Iowa be able to maintain its physical style of play without Doyle on hand to instill a culture of toughness? How would the truncated offseason impact the player development that Iowa so heavily relies on to field competitive football teams? Would COVID-19 prevent the season from being played? And if so, with all of the chaos and tumult surrounding the coaching staff, would Ferentz and his lieutenants still command the respect necessary to convince players to abide by stringent COVID protocols for the duration of the year?
Iowa’s disastrous beginning to the 2020 campaign certainly raised concerns about the answers to these questions. After uninspired performances against Purdue and Northwestern resulted in an 0-2 start, many fans feared that the tumultuous offseason had taken a devastating toll on the program, and that Kirk Ferentz and his staff had lost control of the locker room. Iowa’s prospects for winning the remainder of its games seemed dismal at best, and one would have been hard pressed to find any fans or experts who believed the program was capable of reeling off six straight victories.
Fortunately, Iowa’s players and coaches were not infected by this defeatist attitude. Iowa won its final six games in dominant fashion, outscoring its opponents by a combined margin of 214-83. The Hawkeyes went undefeated in their trophy games, extending their winning streaks against Minnesota and Nebraska to six games and wresting the Heartland Trophy from Wisconsin’s clutches for the first time since 2015. Iowa ended its decade-long losing streak against Penn State, solidified its dominance over border rival Illinois, and absolutely ruined Rocky Lombardi’s homecoming to the state of Iowa by intercepting the Michigan State quarterback three times in a palate-cleansing 49-7 victory.
Iowa’s accomplishments on the football field speak for themselves. The Hawkeyes won six straight conference games for only the fourth time in Ferentz’s 2+ decades at the helm and will almost certainly finish among the top 15 teams in the country when the final rankings are released. Iowa produced yet another top ten defense despite the loss of All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa and leaned on an elite offensive line and a dynamic running game to score more points per game (31.8) than any Hawkeye team since 2002. The dominant physical play of All-Americans Daviyon Nixon (the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year) and Tyler Linderbaum (the best center in the country according to Pro Football Focus) put to rest any doubts about whether the Hawkeyes could remain the “Bullies of the Big Ten” even without Chris Doyle.
Yet the impact of Iowa’s victories this season extend far beyond the field of play. “The Iowa Way,” the culture of toughness, hard work, and individual accountability that had guided the program throughout the Ferentz era, faced its greatest challenge to date entering this season, and between the coronavirus and Iowa’s 0-2 start, the players had every excuse in the book to give up when their backs were against the wall. Had this come to pass, Iowa would have validated all of the negative perceptions about the program that emerged over the past six months, forcing the team into a death spiral that might have taken years to recover from.
Instead, Iowa’s players and coaches proved why the program was worth saving, rallying once again around a common cause and beating the odds to become one of the nation’s top college football teams. The Hawkeyes handled the coronavirus as well as any program in the country, and the team’s vulnerable and earnest self-reflection in the wake of the racial disparity scandal not only prevented this year’s cohort from crumbling, but also laid the foundation to create a stronger, more inclusive program in the years to come. 2020 could have easily signaled the downfall of Iowa football. Instead, the Hawkeyes appear to have beaten the odds and may well emerge from this year in an even better place than they were on January 1st, 2020, a proposition which would have seemed near impossible a few months ago.
The great tragedy about the 2020 Iowa team will always be the unknowns. What might this team have been capable of during a “normal” college football season? Would Iowa have avoided its early Big Ten losses had it played a few warmup games against non-conference opponents to start the season? Could the Hawkeyes have gone toe to toe with teams like Ohio State or Iowa State had they been given a chance to play out their original schedule? Since Iowa was denied a chance to play a Championship Week game or bowl matchup against a decent opponent, Hawkeye fans will never have a true measure of how good this team was by the end of the season (it’s worth noting that Sports Reference rates this season’s schedule as Iowa’s easiest in the past 110 years and the fourth-easiest in program history). Our eyes told us that Iowa was playing as well as any team in the country to end the season, but they were never given the chance to prove it.
Iowa’s 2020 season may have ended without a proper resolution, but it’s easy to see why Kirk Ferentz considers this year’s team to be among his favorite Hawkeye squads of his tenure in Iowa City. When outside forces conspired to pull this team apart, it drew closer together. When cracks emerged in the program’s foundation, the team worked to repair them. Few would have faulted the Hawkeyes for buckling under the immense weight placed on their shoulders this year, especially given the results of their first two games. But in saving their season, they may have saved Iowa’s football program as well.