I've been thinking about this post all week, because there's no easy answer to the question at hand: What is the thing with this game?
Iowa plays Michigan Saturday in the penultimate game of its regular (and almost certainly entire) season. The Hawkeyes have won three straight over Big Blue, with Michigan's last win coming back in 2006; in fact, Iowa is the only Big Ten team this group of Michigan seniors has played every year and has not yet defeated (they haven't beaten Penn State, either, but PSU rotated off the schedule the last two years). It's odd that this streak, Iowa's longest ever against Michigan, would come now, as the programs pass like ships in the night headed to opposite destinations, Michigan sailing back to its usual place in perennial Rose Bowl contention and Iowa grasping for flotsam as the ship goes down, if only temporarily.
They had already crossed by this point last season, when Iowa was clearly headed toward the middle of the pack and Michigan continuing its ascendance, when the Hawkeyes pulled off an improbable 24-16 win at Kinnick. Now we get Michigan, in Michigan Stadium, on Senior Day, with the schism between the teams now so readily apparent. Everything about this screams disaster. This is contentious ground. We are not to fight here.
And yet, even with the programs growing apart, this remains an excellent matchup for Iowa. Despite its personnel and history, Michigan desperately wants to throw the ball from the pocket, to run between the tackles, to matriculate the ball down the field in the crudest of ways. Zach Travis said on the podcast that the Michigan offensive coaches breathed a sigh of relief when Denard went down, not because he's a lackluster player but because it finally allowed them to install the offense they truly wanted to run. Iowa is built to absorb that and force Michigan into the kinds of mistakes that Iowa needs to win. Iowa doesn't need to ugly this game up; Michigan will wallow in it as well as we will. Iowa's offense will struggle mightily with the Michigan defense Saturday, this much is clear, and there will still need to be some sort of life from that offense if they are to truly compete and not just wilt to a moral victory. But it's not going to take much.
And therein lies the problem. What if Iowa does the improbable tomorrow? What if the Hawkeyes roll into Ann Arbor one more time -- Ferentz is a respectable 2-2 in the Big House -- and knock off the Wolverines? Will that be enough? Will that be confirmation that This Thing, whatever it is, is now working? Will Kirk Ferentz walk before the assembled media and cackle in their faces at the lack of faith they had in his abilities just days before? Will we have finally accepted that our current role is spoiler, be it for Michigan or Nebraska or Northern Illinois?
Iowa could come out flat again, listless on offense, perpetually out of position on defense, incapable of matching the mighty Wolverines, and the fight will end relatively quickly and we can go back to the lamentations of the last month. That's certainly possible, probable if you ask Las Vegas. And maybe it won't matter what happens, given Ferentz's propensity for holding onto the milk way past its expiration date. But if Iowa holds out and stays close and gets a break or two and actually wins? It's a great memory for the Hawkeye seniors, but little more. It's a glimmer of hope in what will certainly be the despair of a bowl-less winter, but only a glimmer. It's an upset win that is desperately needed, but as a stepping stone without a second, a path we are too far along to really begin. There is nothing left to lose, but at this point, there is nothing left to gain, either. There is but to play.
An Arkansas fan on something I read last week was lamenting that he had been forced to count down the weeks to the end of their excruciating 2012 campaign, not with dread or melancholy, but with the anticipation that it will finally be over. The lament was at the fact that this season, the season for which he waits throughout the 36 non-football weeks of the year, had turned into a season he just wanted to finish. We have all been there at one point or another this year -- if traffic to BHGP is any indication, about a third of you have been there for three weeks -- but the offseason is the barren wasteland of Cormac McCarthy's dreams. Feelings of dread and anxiety still trump no feeling for us, and horrible football is better than no football at all.
So play. Play and watch and try to enjoy this autumn of our autumn. Eight days from now, it's gone.