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Overreaction Monday: Iowa Football, Underdog Specialists

The Hawkeyes are at their best when they’re the underdog. They’re the underdog quite frequently.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Iowa
People often forget Iowa won their last matchup with Ohio State 55-24.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Enormous amounts of virtual or digital ink have been proverbially spilled discussing the intricacies of Iowa fandom. As a Hawkeye fan, you’re both perpetually optimistic and pessimistic. It’s uncanny and yet nearly impossible. We both expect our teams to win every game and are incredibly upset when they don’t, yet constantly left waiting for something to go terribly wrong.

That’s driven, at least in part, by expectations. We all expect the Iowa football team to go 8-4. It doesn’t really matter what year it is, who is on the schedule or whether we’re breaking in a new QB. If we polled the community today, the bell curve would come to an agreement that the Hawkeyes will be 8-4 in 2020 (if we’re rounding).

Sure, Ken O’Keefe is trotting out a first year starter this fall, if there is a fall, and he’ll be doing so without the benefit of a full spring of practices with him in the driver’s seat or any sort of summer workouts with his receiving group. Iowa will be replacing their 1st round NFL Draft pick right tackle Tristan Wirfs and one of their highest rated recruits ever in defensive end A.J. Epenesa. They’re also facing a brutal Big Ten schedule that includes a random Friday night conference opener at Minnesota the week after the Cy-Hawk series, back-to-back road trips to Ohio State and Penn State, and a season finale against a Wisconsin team the Hawkeyes haven’t beaten in four tries.

But at the end of the day, we’re all going to predict Iowa ends the year 8-4, on average. Even more precisely, we’re all going to predict Iowa ends the year 8-4 with losses to Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and one of Iowa State, Minnesota and dealer’s choice of Purdue, Nebraska or Northwestern. Our expectations are the same regardless of the roster and what’s going on in the outside world.

And the outside world largely agrees. Sure, Vegas is calling for 7-5, but if you ask any random college football fan what Iowa will do next year they’re falling somewhere between 7-5 and 9-3. Not one of them is predicting Iowa to win the West. Not one is predicting a win over Ohio State or Penn State. And very few are predicting a win over Wisconsin. That’s not exclusive to 2020, it’s just the way things are and have been for the better part of 20 years.

It’s also why Iowa is the greatest underdog in college football.

We hear nearly every season about the mystique of Kinnick at night. The truth is, there is no mystique. Kinnick is a tough place to play, period. The fans are into it, they’re on top of you and the Hawkeyes are good. They’re always good. We complain about the mediocrity and the lack of Big Ten titles, but at the end of the day, there are almost never bad Iowa teams.

Part of that is due to the approach to gameday that Kirk Ferentz has always taken, playing an NFL style game designed to keep Iowa in things until the very end. While that has meant far fewer blowout wins over meddling MAC or FCS opponents than some of Iowa’s peers, it has also meant no game is really out of reach, even when the competition has superior athletes.

The other major factor, however, is the personnel. Iowa is never going to be loaded with 4- and 5-star talent up and down the roster. In a state this size, shared with another power 5 program and very limited metro areas, there just isn’t going to be a lot of high end talent knocking down the door in Iowa City. But Ferentz and staff have always found plenty of guys who are willing to outwork everyone else and never give up. The Hawkeyes are almost never the ones sucking wind or lying on the turf with “injuries” in the fourth quarter. They’ve trained for that moment and practiced it.

The result over Ferentz’s 20 seasons has been a lot of opportunities for upset and a lot of seizing those opportunities. In 70% of Iowa’s seasons under KF (14), the Hawkeyes have taken down a top-20 opponent. They’ve knocked off ten top-ten teams and are an impressive 7-8 against top-ten opponents in Kinnick Stadium, including a pair of losses in Kirk’s first season in 1999. Since 2002, Iowa is a fitting 7-5 against top-ten teams at home.

Put simply, Iowa does very well in games most people don’t expect them to win. The Hawkeyes are at their best when expectations are low and they can play the role of spoiler, of underdog.

Some of Iowa’s best years under KF have been in those low expectation seasons with 2015 perhaps the best example. Following an abysmal finish to a mediocre 2014 season, 2015 had Ferentz again in the proverbial hot seat. Not with the athletic department or Gary Barta, but with the fans. Season ticket renewals plummeted and expectations were firmly in the basement. Of course, the Hawkeyes went on to go 12-0.

As we look ahead to 2020, should there be a season, we again see those muted expectations. With a new QB and the departing pieces along both lines, few Iowa fans are daydreaming of another 10-win season like we just experienced. Nobody is expecting wins over Ohio State or Penn State. Few are even looking for a win over Wisconsin. This is supposed to be a stepping stone year. Not exactly a rebuild with the returning offensive weaponry, but certainly not a peak season with the turnover we did see. Vegas’s call for 7-5 might be a tad low, but it’s not crazy either. Expectations are low.

That’s just when we should look for the most from an Iowa team. This is an underdog season with all the makings of team ready to play the role of major spoiler. That’s just what Iowa football does.