I've been thinking a lot about goals -- both how they are chosen and how they are accomplished -- with this program, and I don't have any easy answers as the season begins. What purpose does this game, against an in-state FCS opponent, actually serve in the larger context of the season?
On last night's podcast, we had a long discussion of the basic philosophy of Iowa football over the last decade, and we reached agreement on one thing: Iowa doesn't blow anyone out. Where Hayden Fry would get a lead and keep chucking the ball deep until the opponent rolled over and died, Kirk Ferentz is perfectly happy to run the ball, run the clock, and run out with a two-touchdown win regardless of the opposition. It's a philosophy that lends itself well to being the underdog: If you can keep it close against the bluebloods on your schedule and occasionally grab a late score and an upset win, the fans stay reasonably happy.
Of course, it doesn't work so well in games against FCS opponents like Northern Iowa. In its last five games against FCS opponents, Iowa has won by an average margin of 17 points, solid but hardly exceptional in a world where Minnesota is beating FCS opponents by more than 20. Just one of those games -- the infamous double kick-block against Northern Iowa in 2009 -- was really in doubt, but these have generally not been the 30-point blowouts that fans expect. Last season, Iowa played a horrendous Missouri State team and beat them by 14 points. Back in 2012, in the last game played against UNI before Saturday, Iowa was up by just four points at halftime and finished with an eleven-point victory. And, of course, there is the 2009 game. All of them were close. All of them led to griping.
The 2009 win went beyond the muttering of fans and became part of the national narrative of that team. When Iowa won its first nine games by 89 total points, critics pointed to the absurdly fortunate nature of the Hawkeyes' win over a lowly FCS program as proof of their illegitimacy. That was the best Iowa team of the last decade, and it beat UNI by a single point. The worst Iowa team of that same time period beat UNI by eleven. And this team might beat UNI by 1 or 11 or 21, and it won't be indicative of anything other than the fact that Iowa is now 1-0 with Ball State on the way and three more games before Big Ten play begins. That will be the same if Iowa wins by 31 or 101, but the chances of that happening are not likely. Iowa is Iowa. Iowa doesn't do that.
If your goal is the Big Ten title -- a respectable goal, mind you, the goal of pretty much every team to take the field at Iowa -- these games are meaningless. Iowa could lose by 50 on each of the next four Saturdays and still win the conference crown, and these games should be treated the way that Ferentz seems to treat them: The preseason. Wins are nice, but not nice enough to give away the entire playbook. Personnel and depth chart issues can be worked out, hypotheses tested and discarded. The preseason is where we see the no-huddle offense. The regular season has no time for such tomfoolery. If that is your mindset, then tomorrow is about precisely those things. Iowa has plenty of depth chart issues to resolve and a deep crop of receivers to try out, and its offense is still trying to figure out what it will be under Greg Davis, an evolution that has to eventually end.
But if your goal for the program is bigger -- like, say, the playoff -- you have to ask why this game is even being played. Forget for a second the non-factor that a win over an FCS program is, or that Iowa will likely lose votes in the polls this week even with a win, and remember 2009. Remember that, at the end of October, Iowa had the top strength of schedule figure in the entire country, a statistical fact rebutted by anecdotal evidence of a memorably tight win over Northern Iowa. Remember that Iowa, as Big Ten frontrunner, led the computer polls but was relegated to second-tier status with Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State in large part because UNI happened.
One of the points of last night's discussion was that Iowa routinely fails to do the things that would make their chosen philosophy successful. The coaches play for close games, but are poor tacticians late in the game, have a poor understanding of clock management, are borderline incompetent in the two-minute drill, and are far too conservative in late-game decisionmaking to take advantage on the rare occasion that they can play for the win. But the UNI game (and the Missouri State game, and the Eastern Illinois game, and the Tennessee Tech game, etc.) is the metaphysical version of that problem: If you don't blow UNI completely out of the water, it's a functional loss, and your philosophy makes it extremely difficult to blow out even the most hapless of opponents. You have set yourself up for failure.
Nevertheless, Gary Barta has been pushing for an exception to the coming Big Ten prohibition on scheduling FCS opponents, disingenuously arguing that Iowa needs to play its 'rival' from Cedar Falls like it's an annual series. Iowa has played 16 games against UNI in 116 years. His argument is invalid, and he barely conceals his recognition of that fact. Barta is chasing the UNI series not out of a love of tradition. He's chasing it because he wants -- not needs, but wants -- a seventh home game every year, and the coming nine-game Big Ten schedule coupled with the Iowa State series means he'll need an FCS team and a MAC opponent every year to make that a reality. It's a small-ball mindset, a desire to be a regional program and little more, that will bring tomorrow's game into being. And if your hope for the program is something bigger than a decent showing in the Big Ten West and another trip to Tampa or Arizona, that should be your takeaway from Saturday.