Can a season simultaneously rank as one of the program’s best and also mildly disappointing at the same time? Insert James Earl Jones’ deep baritone: Yes, yes it can.
Kirk and the Hawkeyes deserve kudos for grinding out 10 wins. Iowa’s schedule was loaded with potholes. Purdue flirts with respectability; Illinois showed signs of life under Lovie; Iowa State is a pesky cub (if not a bear). Previous Hawkeye teams would have stumbled at least once (for the record, Brohm’s aerial pyrotechnics -- and proven history of defanging a Phil Parker secondary -- scare the living hell out of me). Moreover, in the Hawkeyes’ two signature victories (Minnesota and USC), the Hawkeyes unleashed a level of offensive creativity that, quite frankly, had this Iowa fan shaking his head in joyous disbelief. The USC rout and Minnesota first half were Brian Ferentz masterpieces and maybe, just maybe showed that the whole “control field position, don’t make mistakes, punt on second down” KF philosophy has an expiration date.
Big picture: The season was a success, anchoring KF’s third return to national relevancy (2015-2019). The Hawkeyes will finish in the low teens and we, as Hawkeye fans, get an entire offseason to bask in adulation. And while seniors like Nate Stanley and Kristian Welch will be missed, the 2020 roster is brimming with playmakers. The offense has the potential to be dynamic and the defense, with a returning Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon, and deep secondary, should be stout (just don’t look at that October schedule). Recruiting continues to improve; while Iowa will never be part of the hat-switching brigade on ESPN every February, KF and company continue to unearth contributors (Hello, Brandon Smith! Good day Sam LaPorta) in the unlikeliest of places. The future is bright; in fact, I would argue Iowa football is the strongest it has been since its Orange Bowl campaign.
But here’s the rain (or, at least, sprinkles) on that Hawkeye ticker-tape parade: As enthused as I am about Iowa’s second 10-win season in a decade, there is a nagging sense that the Hawkeye left a victory or three on the table. While the season was undoubtedly successful, the opportunity was there for a magical season: a senior quarterback, emerging playmakers at RB and WR, two first round picks on the offensive line, a fearsome defensive line (anchored by a superstar defensive end), a senior middle linebacker (incidentally, Iowa’s most important position), a deep secondary, and Keith Duncan’s finger-wagging magic. There was not a glaring weakness on the Iowa roster -- not one that you, I, or Kirk from Iowa City should obsess about. And with a relatively favorable schedule (no Ohio State, a beatable Michigan, a lit Kinnick welcoming Penn State), you wonder if this could have been --or, perhaps, should have been -- one of those storybook years.
My belief: It should have been (and, yes, I acknowledge that grumbling about a 10-3 season reeks of Bill Simmons-eque fan entitlement). Considering our stocked roster, it is disappointing that we didn’t knock off one of the three traditional Big Ten bluebloods on our schedule. The losses to Penn State and Wisconsin followed the all-too-familiar script. The defense, overtaxed because of the offense's ineptitude, concedes a backbreaking scoring drive. Now down two scores, the offense suddenly roars to life (almost like a mutant cross between the 2000 St. Louis Rams and 2007 New England Patriots). There is a brief moment of hope -- maybe, just maybe we can pull this off! -- before said blueblood slams that faint glimmer of Hawkeye hope into a sock drawer. Game, match, KF platitudes. While the Penn State and Wisconsin games frustrated, I thought both opponents were marginally better than the Hawkeyes -- even though Iowa had the talent and depth to prevail in those games.
As for that other blueblood, the one that blends arrogance with football underachievement, well, the Hawkeyes should have prevailed in double A. And, yes, that game still irks three months later. Iowa could have built an apartment complex on Michigan’s side of the field; god knows we spent enough time in UM territory. But because of 1) an inability to adjust to Michigan’s blitzes; 2) an immobile QB seeing ghosts; and 3) a one-dimensional offensive game plan that abandoned any pretense of running the football, the Hawkeyes let an eminently winnable game against a conference blueblood slip away. Sure, Michigan has a starry roster filled with four- and five-star recruits (so does USC, for that matter); despite the recruiting accolades, Shea Patterson and company thoroughly unimpressed me. It violates my own fandom constitution (thou shall not play revisionist history) to say Iowa should have defeated Michigan but... Iowa should have defeated Michigan.
So as I put a black-and-gold bow on the 2019-20 season, there were enough Hawkeye successes to make this a memorable, if not magical, season. The USC victory will be the gift that keeps on giving. For our solid, if unspectacular, program, how often do you get to put a non-conference bully in a three-hour headlock? The answer: That glorious Outback Bowl win over Florida is now a sixteen year-old teenager. But despite this season’s accomplishments -- and there were many (Eppy and Duncan; batting a cool .750 in rivalry games; the senior class winning 47 games) -- it is hard to not lament the one (or three) that got away. The pieces, I believe, were there for a real Hawkeye ticker-tape parade -- one featuring Hawkeye players, fans, and the marching band high-stepping through the Rose Bowl Parade and into the Granddaddy of ‘Em All.