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It Must Be Exhausting Always Rooting for the Anti-hero

With its retrograde offense and gross nepotism, Iowa was cast by many as a new villain of college football. Until Michigan came along.

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

Over the past few seasons, the Iowa Hawkeye football team has been cast in a role the program had avoided for basically its entire existence: that of the villain. Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa has occasionally been viewed as a plucky underdog, a curious oddity that wins games with the final score of 6-4 or throws a Hail Mary to beat the defending national champion, or even the so-called “fake ID of college football”. Still, Iowa was rarely the bad guy in grand narrative of a given college football season, unless you happened to be one of its rivals or a title contender forced to play the Hawkeyes in a late-season night game in Kinnick Stadium.

However, Iowa’s place in the college football psyche seems to have changed over the past few seasons. The Hawkeyes’ ability to prevent their opponents from scoring points has always contributed more to the team’s winning than their own scoring prowess. But over the past three seasons, the growing chasm between the brilliance of Phil Parker’s defense and the bumbling ineptitude of Brian Ferentz’s offense turned the average fan’s curiosity into something more akin to genuine disgust. People didn’t understand how a coach as successful and respected as Kirk Ferentz would stand for one half of his team being so much worse than the other on a consistent basis without doing something (anything!) to fix it…until they noticed that his offensive coordinator happened to share his last name.

As Iowa sunk further down the rankings of offensive output throughout the 2022 season, the Hawkeyes were subjected to widespread national criticism while being characterized as a posterchild of nepotism. Iowa’s solution to this problem (making zero offensive staffing changes and restructuring Brian Ferentz’s contract to condition his employment on hitting an insultingly modest set of benchmarks) only made the problem worse, inspiring mocking national coverage of the “Drive to 325” and solidifying Iowa as a social media punching bag. College football fans looked on each week with abject horror as Iowa struggled to score in the double-digits against middling competition, yet somehow managed to win games. Every victory the Hawkeyes notched was depicted as an affront to good taste and an embarrassment to the college game, and the fact that Iowa just kept winning only made it worse.

In fairness to Iowa’s critics, most of the charges leveled against the Hawkeye football program in recent years have been 100% accurate. Iowa’s offense has been and continues to be a slow motion trainwreck colliding with a dumpster fire, Kirk Ferentz did show a significant blind spot when it came to his son’s management of the offense, and Hawkeye games aren’t appealing to the average college football fan thanks to their lack of explosive offensive plays. Still, while most Iowa fans agree with the assessments of their team’s flaws, they have also felt frustrated by the way these critiques invalidate Hawkeye victories on purely aesthetic grounds, as though Iowa’s ten wins this year are somehow less significant an accomplishment than Missouri’s, Louisville’s, or Oklahoma’s simply because they came on the strength of the team’s defense and special teams rather than their offense. Watching Iowa fans celebrate their team win the Big Ten West while posting finals scores like 10-7 and 13-10 only served to confuse and infuriate the rest of the college football world even more and turned hate-watching the Hawkeyes and rooting for the team to experience karmic retribution for its sins against the modern offense into hobbies of their own. If you loved college football, the Iowa Hawkeyes and their rotting whale carcass of an offense were a villain that needed to be stopped ASAP.

And then along came Michigan.

After spending nearly two decades as Ohio State’s punching bag, the Michigan Wolverines have asserted themselves as the class of the Big Ten and a perennial national title contender, but not without making more than a few enemies along the way. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh became a polarizing figure by throwing shade at some of the sport’s southern powerhouses, but his recruiting trail antics and alleged role in committing recruiting violations have made him and his program a lighting rod of criticism. This mounting Michigan backlash reached a fever pitch when allegations emerged that a Michigan staffer had been illegally scouting the team’s upcoming and potential opponents by filming their sidelines in-person (and occasionally in disguise) to steal the other teams’ signs. The staffer who committed the offense was fired along with another coach who was accused of obstructing the investigation into the sign-stealing, while Harbaugh was slapped with his second three-game suspension of the 2023 season. Neither Harbaugh’s suspensions nor the national outrage over Michigan’s alleged improprieties have impeded the Wolverines’ dominance this season, however, with the team adopting “Michigan vs. Everyone” as their new mantra and alleging a vast anti-Harbaugh conspiracy, all while dominating the competition en route to a 12-0 regular season.

Iowa now stands as the last chance to stop Michigan from winning the Big Ten and earning a playoff slot and a shot at the national championship. Iowa, the program that was allegedly ruining college football with its retrograde offense and blatant nepotism, will now be looked to as one the final lines of defense to save it. Now that the true villain has emerged, the Hawkeyes can assume their rightful place as the anti-hero—a team lacking the traditional attributes and composition of college football’s savior, but the only one remaining with a chance to give Michigan the justice its detractors believe it deserves and stop it from making the playoffs. The meme of Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, long used by the college football community to express its despair at Iowa’s ability to win games with one hand tied behind its back, has taken on an entirely new meaning as fans look to the Hawkeyes to prove that Michigan’s alleged cheating cannot be allowed to prosper.

After years of being a punchline, Hawkeye fans can expect a week full of well-wishes from several fanbases who have a vested interest in an Iowa victory. The same Big Ten schools that were angrily calling the conference’s commissioner to demand punishment the of Michigan will be fully invested in an Iowa victory and, if Michigan’s claims are to be believed, may even be inclined to give Iowa’s coaching staff a call to provide some friendly intel about what the Hawkeyes can expect when they square off against the Wolverines. Texas fans (whose team’s playoff hopes rest on one of the remaining undefeated teams losing their conference championship game) and supporters of both Georgia and Washington (who could both potentially make the playoff even if they lose their championship games in the event of a Michigan loss on Saturday) will also be rooting for Iowa to knock out a serious roadblock to their own title hopes. Possibly nobody outside of Iowa City or Columbus, Ohio will be rooting harder for the Hawkeyes to knock off the Wolverines than Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, who cannot relish the prospect of handing the Stagg Championship Trophy over to Harbaugh while being showered by epithets from the Wolverine fans in attendance in Indianapolis.

Whether any of this support will help the Hawkeyes pull off what would be a massive upset remains to be seen. But, for one week at least, it will be nice for Iowans to watch the same fans who have been actively rooting for Iowa’s offense to be its downfall to suddenly cheer with all their might for the Hawkeye defense to muck up the game, for punting to truly be winning, and for Brian Ferentz to complete what would be one of the most stunning redemption arcs in the recent history of the sport. However, if Iowa loses handily to Michigan on the national stage, Hawkeye fans can expect the valid criticisms of the team’s style of play and frustration with Iowa’s failure to impede Michigan’s coronation to produce even more memes, more jokes on social media, and more serious questions about whether the program has what it takes to go toe to toe with the college football elites without making some serious philosophical changes.