Iowa’s tango with USC in this Friday’s Holiday Bowl could be a sneaky big game for Nate Stanley, Kirk Ferentz’s legacy, and the Hawkeye football program. Let’s go ahead and call it a resume game.
As any college football fan knows, Southern California is old money, located in college football’s Glen Oaks with Ohio State, OU, and Alabama. SC carries cachet, even if Clay Helton is piloting the Trojans into the recruiting abyss. And while this USC team doesn’t measure up to the Pete Carroll “Win Forever” days, it still has a buffet of playmakers (see: that loaded WR corps, for starters). Win and the college football paparazzi will take notice; USC ain’t Boston College in a shivering, nondescript bowl game.
First things first, let’s talk about our stoic senior QB. I have already devoted a cool 750 words to Nate Stanely’s solid, if slightly underwhelming, Hawkeye legacy. The CliffsNotes version: Stanley has been Cool Hand Luke against middling to decent competition (please note you can include Iowa State in either category). Against elite competition, with a giant 55-24 sized asterisk, Stanley has been lackluster, particularly in conference roadies. And because of his dreary road performance(s), Stanley will leave Iowa without an Indy appearance despite his gaudy statistics and impressive collection of B+ victories.
USC represents Stanley’s last chance for a 2019 signature victory (Minnesota is nice and all but I want a bigger scalp that PJ Fleck’s bald head). In Stanley’s three marquee contests this year--Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin, he has vacillated between woeful and wonderful. The problem: his wonderful came when his Hawkeyes were down and nearly out against Penn State and Wisconsin. And while a USC victory won’t be the perfect salve for those painful defeats, it would provide a nice, symmetrical black and gold bow for his standout career: two wins over powerhouse programs (Ohio State and USC), three straight bowl wins, a sweep of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa State, and an incremental spike in Hawkeye victories (from eight to nine to ten). And assuming Stanley can pilot the Hawkeyes to victory on Friday, Iowa would stand a decent chance of squeezing into the top 12 of the CFP rankings. That would be heady company -- both for our well-respected QB and the Hawkeyes.
As for Captain Kirk, this game won’t alter his legacy that much. When you have five top-10 finishes and a pair of Big Ten championships, a victory in a mid-tier bowl (even against a historic powerhouse like USC) won’t be program-defining. That said, this game is sneaky important for Kirk, even if he is loathe to admit it. First, if Iowa wins and looks impressive doing so, the Hawkeys could vault into the top 10 (admittedly, there would have to be bowl chaos elsewhere but a top 10 finish remains a possibility). And assuming Iowa sneaks into the top 10, this would represent Kirk’s sixth top-10 finish, a pretty monumental achievement for a coach inching closer to the “Will he or won’t he retire?” decision.
Another Kirk-infused storyline: Ferentz’s Hawkeys have been poleaxed in their Pac 12 match-ups outside of Iowa; the Stanford band is probably still mocking the Hawkeyes. There was that Rose Bowl clubbing; a painful loss in Tucson in 2010; the Tempe meltdown; the second half collapse against SC in the Orange Bowl. Here is a (black and) golden opportunity to debunk two well-worn narratives: the West Coast turns Iowa into the Zombie Hawks and the Pac 12 outclasses Iowa teams with superior [insert one: speed, athletes, and/or playmaking ability]. You know Kirk, with a painfully thin smile, is sick of fielding these loaded questions. What better way to put these questions to bed than with a stirring victory against the West Coast’s flagship program? In a quasi-road environment two hours away from SC’s campus? Hell, New Kirk might even make a San Diego appearance. And, for the record, Kirk has defeated the SEC, Big 12, and ACC in bowl games (the notable exception among Power 5 opponents: his bagel against the Pac 12).
Lastly, this game is important for Iowa’s national reputation. Iowa is an above-average program, consistently respectable if sporadically elite. Once we lose our annual bloodbath to Wisconsin, we generally become a national afterthought among college football heavies. The Outback (or bust) is an overplayed but mostly accurate tagline. But here’s the thing: over the past five years, Iowa has averaged over nine wins per season. We have flirted with national relevance--from the college football playoff rankings to primetime television to SportsCenter leading with the Michigan and Ohio State upsets. We are not quite in the national discussion but we are loitering, if that makes sense. A victory over SC (even a mildly underachieving SC) could provide Iowa with the type of national credibility that a hard-fought win over Minnesota and Iowa State never could. And, more broadly, a Hawkeye victory over starry SC would cement KF’s third Iowa uprising (2002-2004, 2008-2010, and 2015-TBD). A pair of 10 plus win seasons (2015, 2019) anchoring the Hawkeyes’ return to national relevancy; I would take that quicker than Gary Barta can sign KF to a(nother) 10 year extension.
Friday night at 5:00* (my favorite words in the English language) can’t come soon enough for this Hawkeye homer. The Hawks have a tantalizing opportunity -- one that, I hope, serves as a fitting coda for Stanley’s standout career, Kirk’s third reinvention, and the Hawkeyes’ ascent into the Top 10.
* 5:00 PM Pacific (7:00 PM Central)