One week ago, Alabama won the College Football National Championship in a 52-24 beatdown of the Ohio State Buckeyes, the second best team in the sport and the winners of the same Big Ten conference the Iowa Hawkeyes have not won since 2004. As I watched the Crimson Tide celebrate their sixth national title since 2009, I couldn’t help but reflect on what it would take for the Hawkeyes to be crowned national champions, a distinction last bestowed on them in 1960. Iowa and Alabama both enter each season with the same goal of finishing the year as the sport’s undisputed champion, yet it is clear that this ambition is far more achievable for some programs than others on a yearly basis. Just what would it take for the Hawkeyes to finally claw their way back to the top of the mountain for the first time in sixty years?
There are still many living Hawkeye fans who remember the days when Iowa was a perennial Big Ten powerhouse and a yearly national title contender. Under Forest Evashevski, the Hawkeyes were chosen as national champions three times by NCAA-designated major selectors, claiming titles in 1956, 1958, and 1960. Led by elite quarterbacks such as Kenny Ploen, Randy Duncan, and Wilburn Hollis and featuring a bevy of collegiate stars like Alex Karras, Jim Gibbons, Larry Ferguson, and Don Norton, Evashevski’s Hawkeye teams were consistently among the best teams in America’s most difficult conference.
Iowa’s place in the college football pecking order has changed considerably since 1960. The Hawkeyes became a national laughingstock once Evashevski abdicated his coaching responsibilities after the 1960 season, toiling in futility for two decades. While Iowa has been a consistently good and occasionally great team under the past 40+ years of Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz, they have rarely been in a real position to contend for a national title. Even if Iowa had finished the 2002 or 2009 seasons undefeated, they likely would have been passed over for a BCS title shot in by the two undefeated teams that squared off for the national title in those years. Furthermore, while Iowa had a clear path to a title in both 1985 and 2015, conference losses derailed their championship ambitions, while blowout Rose Bowl defeats eliminated any chance of the Hawkeyes claiming to have been fraudulently denied the crown. Even if the Hawkeyes had beaten Michigan State in the 2015 Big Ten Championship, it’s difficult to envision that Iowa team beating Alabama in the Cotton Bowl considering what Christian McCaffery did to the Hawkeyes only one day after the Crimson Tide dispatched of Michigan State 38-0.
The sport of college football has also changed dramatically over the past sixty years. Southern schools have largely replaced leagues like the Big Ten and Pac-12 as the class of the sport, as decades-long demographic shifts away from dying industrial centers in the Midwest created fertile recruiting grounds south of the Mason-Dixon Line. As such, the Big Ten has only won two national titles since the turn of the millennium (both claimed by Ohio State), and the Buckeyes’ victory in the 2014-15 campaign was the only title won by a non-southern school in the last fifteen years.
Other factors also conspired to radically alter college football. The creation of single national championship game replaced the longstanding tradition of different selectors naming their own champions, reducing the number of teams able to legitimately claim to be the nation’s best at the end of any given season. While the birth of the College Football Playoff in 2014 doubled the number of teams with a shot to win the title each postseason, these playoff spots have gone almost exclusively to the sport’s bluebloods; five schools (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame) account for 22 of the 28 playoff berths. Finally, the liberalization of substitution rules in the 1960s allowed teams to create separate offensive, defensive, and special teams units, eliminating the impact individual two-way stars like Nile Kinnick, Alex Karras, or Curt Merz could have on a game and giving advantages to teams who could stockpile greater depths of talented players and recruit enough elite players to fill out entire their rosters on both sides of the ball.
Given everything that has changed since the Hawkeyes last sat atop the sport of college football, what would it take for Iowa to once again have a real shot at winning another national title?
Any formula for an Iowa football renaissance has to start with recruiting. The gap between Iowa’s recruiting prowess and that of the sport’s elite is the size of the Grand Canyon. As of December 15, 2020, Alabama had signed 44 five-star recruits since 2011 compared to Iowa’s one. As deserved as Iowa’s reputation as an elite developmental program is, the ability to bring that much elite talent to campus every year gives the Alabamas of the world a significantly greater margin for error than teams like Iowa, who could see promising seasons disrupted if a few of their more talented prospects suffer injuries, leave early for the NFL, or simply fail to develop into the player the coaches expected. Given Iowa’s small population base, the chances of them ever consistently recruiting on the level of college football’s elites are slim to none.
To overcome this disadvantage, Iowa needs to hit VERY big on a few recruits at critical positions. Having one stud offensive lineman doesn’t give a team a chance to win a title (see Scherff: Brandon), but having a Heisman contender at quarterback, NFL talent along the offensive line and at key skill positions, and a few elite pass rushers and defensive backs is enough to create a real stealth contender. Iowa has proven over the years that it can produce superstar college players at all of these positions, but to contend for a national title, it would need to have all of them healthy and on the same team at the same time. Barring a few unexpected top ten recruiting classes, Iowa may need several of its typical “diamond in the rough” recruits to end up shining like the Hope Diamond to have a chance at a championship.
Alternatively, Iowa could strike gold in the transfer portal. Imagine a scenario where Iowa has a true first-round NFL prospect at quarterback in addition to a great offensive line and a typical Phil Parker defense. With underclassman transfers becoming more common every year, might an Iowa team that’s viewed as a legitimate preseason championship contender be able to attract enough experienced talent from other schools to fills gaps at key positions and bolster their title chances?
However, even if Iowa can put together a once-in-a-generation team, there are serious questions about whether the Hawkeyes’ style of play is conducive to winning a national title in modern college football. While Iowa regularly produces elite defenses, it is offense, not defense, that wins championships in today’s game. Since 2003, every national champion has had an offense that ranks among the top 30 in the nation in points per game, while ten of the championship teams in this timespan have had offenses ranked in the top ten. By contrast, Iowa hasn’t had a top thirty scoring offense since 2002. The 2020 champions from Alabama scored “more touchdowns (84) than field goals, punts, turnovers, and turnovers on downs combined (62).” It is virtually inconceivable that Iowa, with its current offensive philosophy, could ever achieve numbers similar to those. Iowa’s reliance on ball control over generating explosive plays certainly raises the team’s floor, but it clearly puts a ceiling on what its offense is able to achieve. Until the Hawkeyes find a way to raise that ceiling, the numbers suggest that a national title may be hard to come by.
With that being said, is it reasonable for Iowa fans to expect their program to produce a team capable of competing for a championship? Next year’s Iowa squad is already being billed as a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title, coming in at #12 in ESPN’s preseason rankings and receiving the nation’s 14th-best odds to win a national title next year in William Hill’s sportsbook. While both the numbers and recent history seem to be stacked against Iowa’s chances to finish as the nation’s number one team any time soon, that shouldn’t stop Iowa fans like myself from tuning in with anticipation every year to see if this will be the season the Hawkeyes finally crack the code and assemble the team that can go 12-0 or 11-1, win the Big Ten title, and defeat two of the sport’s bluebloods in the College Football Playoff. After all, somebody has to win the championship every year. Why not us?