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2014: A YEAR OF BIG HOPES... AND SMALL REALITIES

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Taking stock of the year that was in Hawkeye sports. You may want to have a stiff drink or two on hand.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to think back to this time a year ago and recall what our hopes and expectations were for Hawkeye sports in 2014.  It's hard just because that was a really long time ago -- I barely remember what I was doing three weeks ago, let alone what I was doing 365 days ago.  But mostly it's hard because doing so forces us to revisit the year that was for Hawkeye sports, which is not a particularly fun or pleasant experience.  As Iowa sports fans, we had big dreams as we entered 2014.

Visions of 10-11 win seasons, Big Ten title contention, and prestigious bowl trips danced in our heads as we dreamed about the 2014 football season. Hopes of Big Ten championships and deep runs in the NCAA Tournament came to mind as we thought about how the 2013-14 basketball season might play out.  Big Ten and NCAA Championship aspirations filled our heads as we contemplated the remainder of the 2013-14 wrestling season.  They were heady days.

As you might recall, the reality of Iowa's performance in 2014 was somewhat different in comparison to our visions for how it might play out.  In fact, none of those things came to pass -- Iowa came up short on all of those fronts in 2014.

Iowa football entered 2014 off an 8-4 season, a dramatic turnaround from a 4-8 record the previous that was punctuated with a come-from-behind win over Michigan and a blowout road win over Nebraska.  2014 got off to a sour note almost immediately as Iowa was handled by LSU in an Outback Bowl that wasn't really as close as the score (21-14) would suggest.  Still, there was plenty of reason for optimism in 2014: Iowa returned starters at nearly every position unit (save linebacker), including All-America contenders along the offensive and defensive line.  Iowa had experience at quarterback and after several fits and starts, some reason to think that the offense was maybe -- just maybe -- starting to gel under Greg Davis.  And Iowa had that schedule -- that damnable schedule -- that looked so inviting.  No road trips harder than Minnesota or Maryland.  No Ohio State or Penn State or Michigan or Michigan State at all.  Potential division-defining games against Wisconsin and Nebraska at the end of the season, when the team should theoretically have been playing at its best.

Instead, Iowa went 7-5 in the 2014 regular season.  They lost both of those "not that hard" road trips to Minnesota and Maryland.  Home field or not, Iowa lost to both Nebraska and Wisconsin.  (It's a bitter irony that they really did play their best game of the season -- or at least best half of the season -- against Wisconsin, albeit in a losing effort.) And they lost to Iowa State.  A miserable Iowa State that won just one other game (over Toledo).  2014 featured no wins over teams that finished with winning records.  It featured just one win over a bowl team (6-6 Illinois).  It featured no ones in trophy games and no wins over a rival (save Our Most Hated Rival, of course).  It was the quite possibly the least satisfying 7-5 season imaginable.

And yet for all the frustration that the 2014 football team created, at least they let us know early that this probably wasn't going to be a special year.  Early struggles with UNI and Ball State and a dumbfounding loss to Iowa State provided striking evidence that this a deeply flawed and problematic team.  We still hoped that things might improve during the season, but it hardly came as much of a surprise that things, in fact, did not improve.  The 2014 basketball season might have been even more painful, though, because they made us think that big things were possible -- and kept stringing us along with that hope right up until the bottom fell out.

Iowa basketball began 2014 ranked #22 in the nation and sporting a 12-2 record; their only losses had come in painfully close games to Villanova and Iowa State, both very good teams.  Iowa began the year with a loss at Wisconsin (a loss that featured Fran's infamous meltdown and a loss that established a template for many of Iowa's losses in 2014: open a big lead early, fritter away said lead while going through a prolonged scoring funk, and lose a close game late), but they continued on an upward trajectory throughout most of January 2014, peaking with a spectacular come-from-behind road win in Columbus (their first in a decade) against #3 Ohio State (admittedly overrated, but still a good team) that helped catapult Iowa to a #10 ranking.  Even the losses seemed excusable in January -- they lost close ones at Wisconsin and Michigan and dropped an OT game to Michigan State at home, but surely, surely those losses just meant that Iowa was achingly close to those teams near the top of the Big Ten food chain and that surely, surely Iowa would break through and starting winning those games.

Except that's not what happened.  Iowa lost to Ohio State in Iowa City early in February, but bounced back to blowout a top-10 Michigan team.  And then the sky fell in.  It fell in literally -- part of the ceiling at Indiana's Assembly Hall ripped off and crashed to the ground, forcing the postponement of Iowa's game against the Hoosiers.  And it fell in figuratively -- Iowa lost five of their last six regular season games and again in their Big Ten Tournament opener, running on fumes and stumbling madly to the finish line.  They lost to good teams (Wisconsin, Michigan State), they lost to OK teams (Minnesota, Purdue), and they lost to bad teams (Northwestern).  Mainly, they just lost.  Again and again and again.  They didn't lose enough to make the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee keep them out of the tournament field (those pre-collapse wins over the likes of Ohio State and Michigan provided just enough ballast to keep them from completely sinking), but only barely -- they made the NCAA Tournament as one of the "First Four" teams and were sent to Dayton to play a play-in First Four game.  Which they promptly lost.  That ended a season that reached heights higher than any Iowa basketball team had achieved in well over a decade, a season that seemed sure to help Iowa exorcise the NCAA Tournament demons that had plagued them for years.

The wrestling season didn't feature such expansive dreams -- Iowa had already been drilled, 24-12, in a dual meet by Penn State at the end of 2013 -- but it's Iowa wrestling.  The dreams and expectations here always include Big Ten and NCAA championships.  Instead, we got neither -- Iowa came achingly close to catching Penn State at the Big Ten Tournament, finishing 2nd and losing by just 5.5 points, but they were a distant 4th at the NCAA Tournament, continuing a recent trend of underperformance there (although Tony Ramos did finally claim an individual national championship, which was a wonderful bright spot).  Nor did any of Iowa's other non-revenue sports really pick up the slack.  No Iowa program won a Big Ten championship.  The women's basketball team finished runner-up at the Big Ten Tournament and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, but once again bowed out before the Sweet 16.  The baseball team had their best season in years (30-23 and an appearance at the Big Ten Tournament), but it still wasn't anything momentous.  Not that success in a non-revenue sport would have made up for the failures of the football and men's basketball programs, of course -- but at least it would have been something, you know?

When 2014 began, we hoped that it might be an annus mirabilis for Hawkeye sports, a year of miracles.  It wasn't that -- not by a long stretch.  Yet it also wasn't a true annus horribilis, a horrible year, either.  Coming up short in game after game, sport after sport, felt bad -- it felt really, really bad, if we're being honest -- but we've also had it much, much worse in all of the sports that matter around here -- and all within the last 5-10 years.  The football team went 4-8 just two years ago; as hollow as this year's 7-5 record was (and it gets no hollower), it was still a step up from a flaming debacle like that.  The memories of Iowa's 10- and 11-win basketball teams are (thankfully) receding further and further into the past, but they they're still recent enough to make us a little thankful that a disappointing season for basketball involved 20 wins and a trip (more or less) to the NCAA Tournament.  2014 wasn't an annus mirabilis and it wasn't an annus horribilis; rather, it was an annus mediocris.

2014 could have been worse for Iowa sports -- we don't have to look too far to see what really bad looks like -- but it could have -- and probably should have -- been so much better, too.  And that's what hurts the most.  There are always going to be good years and bad years at a place like Iowa, up years and down years. But that's why it hurts so much when Iowa isn't able to truly take advantage of those good years -- they don't come around all the time.  2014 was a year of big dreams for Iowa sports.  Unfortunately, it was also a year of small realities.  Let's hope 2015 brings better times, better memories, and better results.