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Can Iowa Football Win Important Games Against Elite Teams? Here’s What the Numbers Say.

The Hawkeyes have proven they can beat basically any team inside Kinnick Stadium late in the season. On the road...not so much.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Big Ten Championship Game - Michigan v Iowa Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Iowa’s performance against the #2 ranked Michigan Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship game was nothing short of disastrous. Not only did the Hawkeyes fail to win the program’s first conference title since 2004, but Iowa was obliterated by the Wolverines in a primetime defeat watched by millions of viewers. The 42-3 final score was the program’s most lopsided margin of defeat since Kirk Ferentz lost 49-3 to Michigan State in 1999, a loss which came during his first season in Iowa City when the program was very much in rebuilding mode.

Frustrated Iowa fans can be forgiven for experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Saturday’s loss felt similar to other embarrassing defeats by Ferentz-led teams against some of the nation’s top programs, particularly Iowa’s losses to USC in the 2003 Orange Bowl and to Stanford in the 2016 Rose Bowl. Each of those games saw Iowa’s offense fail to sustain any consistent production, its defense exposed by a lack of athleticism, and overall flat performances from the team which came at the worst possible moment. For casual fans whose only exposure to Iowa comes in marquee games such as these, it would be easy to craft a narrative that Iowa is incapable of competing with college football’s best teams, calling into question whether the program’s prior success was based solely on wins over inferior competition and lucky breaks.

However, this analysis doesn’t match up with reality. Iowa has beaten several Top Ten teams during the Ferentz era, including two wins over Top Ten opponents this season (Iowa State and Penn State) and victories over Top Five teams from the Big Ten’s elite programs (Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State) over the past six seasons. Furthermore, Iowa’s last trip to the Big Ten Championship in 2015 saw the Hawkeyes narrowly defeated by a Michigan State team that made the College Football Playoff that season—hardly an example of Iowa being run off the field by superior competition.

Is Iowa’s loss to Michigan emblematic of a larger problem the program faces against top-tier competition? Or was this loss, along with Iowa’s defeats at the hands of USC and Stanford, an unfortunate outlier? This article examines Kirk Ferentz’s record in late-season games against Top Ten opponents to determine whether Iowa’s performance at the Big Ten Championship was more of the same for the program or whether Hawkeye fans can expect more from their team the next time they find themselves in a similar game.

While Iowa has played several games against Top Ten opponents during the Ferentz era, not all victories over such teams are created equal. Early/midseason rankings do not always paint an accurate picture of the best teams in college football, as small sample sizes, a wide variance in teams’ strength of schedule, and impressions based on teams’ performances the year prior can often mislead pundits into thinking certain teams are far better or worse than they actual are. For example, while Iowa State and Penn State were both ranked in the Top Ten when Iowa defeated them, both teams finished the regular season with 7-5 records and are both rated outside the Top 25 in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings. Furthermore, while Iowa’s Week 1 win over #17 Indiana initially seemed like an impressive feat, hindsight tells us that Indiana, who finished with a 2-10 record, should never have been ranked to begin with.

Accordingly, this article will focus only on Iowa’s games against Top Ten opponents which took place in the months of November, December, and January. This cutoff is somewhat arbitrary (is a win that takes place on November 1 really more meaningful than one that occurs on October 31? Is Iowa’s 2006 loss to #1 Ohio State really irrelevant only because of the date on which it occurred?) but should help eliminate games in which Iowa played opponents whose lofty rankings were later revealed to be unwarranted. Instead, this piece focuses on games against opponents actively in the running to compete for a conference championship, national championship, or major bowl victory in the final month of the season; teams whose resumes through 2-3 months of play have led them to widely be considered among the nation’s best. How has Iowa fared in these high-pressure games against an elite opponent who still has everything to play for?

Late-Season Games Against Top Ten Opponents

Season Opponent Outcome Stadium Margin of Victory
Season Opponent Outcome Stadium Margin of Victory
2021 #2 Michigan L Neutral -39
2019 #7 Minnesota W Home 4
2017 #3 OSU W Home 31
2017 #6 Wisconsin L Away -24
2016 #2 Michigan W Home 1
2015 #5 MSU L Neutral -3
2015 #5 Stanford L Neutral -29
2010 #5 OSU L Home -3
2009 #10 OSU L Away -3
2009 #9 Georgia Tech W Neutral 10
2008 #3 Penn State W Home 1
2004 #9 Wisconsin W Home 23
2002 #5 USC L Neutral -21
1999 #9 Wisconsin L Away -38

As it turns out, Iowa’s success against elite teams varies dramatically depending on where the game is being held. Under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes are 5-1 when playing at home against Top Ten teams in the month of November, with their only defeat coming in a three-point loss to #5 Ohio State in 2010. The Hawkeyes are +57 in six games against such opponents with an average outcome of a 9.5-point Hawkeye victory. These numbers are inflated by Iowa’s 31-point victory over #3 Ohio State in 2017 and its 23-point win over #9 Wisconsin in 2004, but still speak to the decided advantage the Hawkeyes get from playing big games in Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa’s fortunes are dramatically different against elite opponents outside of Kinnick late in the season. Iowa is 1-7 in such games played on the road or on neutral fields, with its sole victory coming in the 2010 Orange Bowl against #9 Georgia Tech. The Hawkeyes are a combined -147 in these eight games, which averages out to the Hawkeyes losing each contest by three scores (18.375 points). In total, Iowa has been outscored by 90 points in the 14 games included in this dataset due largely to the size of its losses in road and neutral site games.

This huge discrepancy in home/away splits speaks to Iowa’s incredible homefield advantage and shows just how much trouble Iowa has against elite opponents when the Hawkeyes cannot benefit from their home crowd. Since Ferentz’s revitalization of the program, Iowa has been capable of beating virtually anyone in Kinnick Stadium, including some of the best teams in the country who are playing with an eye on hugely important prizes. Outside Iowa City, the Hawkeyes have struggled to overcome the talent disparity when facing elite competition, resulting in disappointing losses which often occur in high-visibility games.

For the record, this trend is not unique to Kirk Ferentz; in fact, the Hawkeyes have fared far better in late-season games against Top Ten opponents under the current regime than they have during most of the program’s history. Hayden Fry earned exactly one win over a Top Ten team in the months of November, December, and January (#5 Illinois in 1990), and the program had gone thirty years without such a victory before that point, with its last late-season win against a Top Ten opponent coming in 1960, Forest Evashevski’s final season.

Still, if Kirk Ferentz hopes to win another Big Ten Championship (to say nothing of competing for a national title), the team will have to learn how to bottle the magic that has propelled it to so many signature wins under the lights of Kinnick Stadium and bring it on the road when facing top-tier opponents. Iowa strengthened its national image in 2021 with victories over Iowa State and Penn State and proved itself to be an excellent team over the course of the season (bad teams generally don’t win ten games and play in conference championships). But if Iowa wants to be something more than the best of the also-rans, it must prove it can win games like the one it lost decisively last Saturday. For all that is right with the Hawkeye football program, it clearly still has work to do on that front.