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Retrospective Ambivalence: Remembering 2021 Hawkeye Football

Let’s take a final look at 2021’s statistics before prognosticating the upcoming season

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Before summer winds down and we turn our attention fully to the 2022 college football season, I would like to propose a toast:

To the 2021 Iowa Hawkeyes!

After the clock ran out against Kentucky on January 1, many of us were unsure how to feel about the 2021 football season. Losing a very winnable bowl game certainly did nothing to send us into the long off-season in good cheer. But a 10-2 regular season is rarified air for all but a small handful of programs, and it certainly felt like overachievement when measured against Iowa’s mounting injuries, makeshift offensive line, and mercurial play calling. Yet, we also saw so many yards, so many first downs, and so many points and opportunities left on the field. The Hawkeyes were capable of beating Wisconsin, Purdue, and/or Kentucky, but also could have easily lost to Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, and/or Odd Year Northwestern.

How are we to remember this curio?

With respect and admiration. Week after week, the 2021 Hawkeye football team produced championship-level defense, very special teams, timely turnovers, and just enough offense at just the right time, winning more games than the quality of the product on the field merited.

It’s all right there in the numbers.

A SPAM Retrospective

If you aren’t familiar with SPAM, check the 2021 SPAM Season Preview, which provides a brief overview. Coming off a strong campaign in the topsy-turvy 2020 season, SPAM had Iowa favored in every matchup on its 2021 slate except Iowa State. Wisconsin and Northwestern were projected challenges, but SPAM expected the Hawkeyes to slide past the balance of their schedule with ease.

But things change. At the beginning of a season, we have no data on the current team. All we have is last year’s data. As noted in the 2021 preview, the quality of the data from the COVID-19 season was questionable. The algorithm predicted Iowa to most likely finish 9-3 or 8-4. While 10-2 was on the table, it was not terribly likely, at only a 20% chance.

As the season wore on, the flaws in the team became difficult to deny, and SPAM’s prognostications soured accordingly. By the idle week, coming off the Purdue loss, Hawkeye Twitter was in full meltdown. The Hawkeyes, once a 90% lock to win the West, watched a trip to Indy slowly slip through their fingers. Add on an ineffectual effort on the road against the resurgent Badgers, and by Thanksgiving week, Iowa was a slight dog at Nebraska, with less than a 1 in 4 chance at making the Big 10 Championship game. As it turned out, we inhabit that 1 branch of the multiverse in which that happened, teeing up Michigan as Iowa’s last chance to win a real Rose Bowl. I wrote at the time:

[T]he Rose Bowl is winnable this year, especially if Utah wins the Pac 12, and this may very well be the final chance Iowa gets to win a traditional Rose Bowl.

(I’m pretty sure I was right).

After the B1G Championship Game, I was ready to hang up my abacus and to retool SPAM to be more generalized, and I am pleased to say that SPAM 2.0 is indeed nearly finished and will soon be launched under a new name. I’ll talk more about that later.

But first, two final tasks for our good SPAM.

As I hinted at the beginning, the numbers bear out any inclination you have towards warm regard for the 2021 Hawkeyes. They were a doppelgänger of Nebraska football. Where Iowa seemingly capitalized on every opportunity, Nebraska seemingly fumbled them all away (often literally). Many asked whether Nebraska was the worst good team or the best bad team, but the same question could be asked of Iowa. The truth is probably in the middle on both counts. But this left me wondering: knowing what we know now, what should Iowa’s record have been?

And so was born the final evolution of SPAM: the Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda index: a reverse-projection of the season that answers this question: if SPAM had advanced knowledge of every CFB team’s PPG and YPG in 2021, what record would it project?

The answer is that Iowa decidedly overachieved. The CWS Index has Iowa with equal odds of going 7-5 and 8-4, at about 21.4%, and 6-6 being more likely than 9-3. The odds of going 10-2 on those stats are just 7.6% (even lower than the pre-season expectation). The 2021 Hawkeyes thus overachieved its on-field performance by about 2.5 wins in the victory column. By contrast, our unfortunate friends in Lincoln suffered the opposite fate. The CWS Index has the 2021 Cornhuskers with a 25.2% chance of being 6-6, with 7-5 being next-likely at 21.1%. The odds of Nebraska notching the 3-9 record they posted were just 4.2%, even less likely than Iowa going 10-2.

Perhaps Iowa is exceptionally lucky and Nebraska is exceptionally cursed. Certainly, luck plays some role. A blocked punt deep in Nebraska territory landing right into Kyler Fisher’s arms like a stork delivering a baby certainly entails some luck. But it is difficult to avoid a comparison between Iowa’s coaching stability over the last two decades and the turnstile Nebraska fans have weathered during that time frame. And it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it counts for something. Perhaps not the full measure of the difference between 10-2 and 3-9.

But something. We’ll save that debate for another day.

I mentioned two final tasks for SPAM. The other is a final prognostication for 2022. I ran the numbers to compare with SPAM2.0 and assess whether the new algorithm is more accurate. Perhaps not surprising, given the schedule and that SPAM offers a less sunny story of 2021 Iowa than does the win-loss column, SPAM is not bullish.

SPAM has 2022 Iowa most likely going 6-6, with almost dead-even odds on either side for 5-7 or 7-5. SPAM has Iowa as a dog to Iowa State (-1.6), Nevada (-0.5), Michigan (-6.7), Ohio State (-14.1), Purdue (-3.1), and Minnesota (-4.5), and gives Iowa just a 7.5% chance to defend its Big 10 West crown. Wisconsin is the clear frontrunner (27.4%), followed by a logjam amongst Purdue (17.0%), Nebraska (16.4%), and Minnesota (15.8%), with Iowa in a distant 5th place ahead of Illinois and Northwestern.

Perhaps SPAM2.0 tells a different tale? We’ll soon see.

One final footnote is merited on the 2021 season. It went largely unheralded that Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz won his first ever road game at Maryland. College Park was one of just two Big 10 venues in which Ferentz had never won a game. He’ll get a crack at the other this year when Iowa makes a rare trip to Columbus on Oct. 22, 2022. This is, one would think, almost certainly his last chance to complete the set. I will be there. If anybody wants to tailgate, let me know. (I also recognize that we have two new venues coming to the conference in 2024, one of which is the legendary Rose Bowl ... one thing at a time, people).

So let us toast: to the 2021 Iowa Hawkeyes! We bid fond farewell to a team that squeezed about as much out of the season as possible, and we turn with well-deserved trepidation to the unknown future before us, where loom horrors many and fell.

What’s Next for SPAM2.0?

Please look forward to a three-part series of posts this August in which we preview Iowa’s 2022 schedule from SPAM’s statistical saddle. The first post will cover what’s new and different in the new system and preview Iowa’s September matchups (SDSU, ISU, Nevada, and Rutgers). The second post will cover the October schedule (Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, and Northwestern). The third will wrap up with the November slate (Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska) and project the Big 10 Division and overall Championship odds. Once the season gets underway, we will offer up weekly posts covering (mostly) Iowa and going over how the numbers and projections are changing. The exact timing and format are somewhat in flux, but there will be content aplenty. I hope you’re looking forward to it as much as I am.