The Expectation Game: Outback or Bust
Admittedly, I am a Hawkeye homer (or, otherwise, I wouldn’t be contributing to this site). I am more Jim Zabel than Bob Costas. I would love to see the Hawkeyes gobsmack every opponent. In my alternate universe, Corso, Herbstreit, and the boys would appear in Iowa City more than once every 15 years. Iowa would dazzle opponents (and fans alike) with its offensive pyrotechnics (no more “punting is winning”).
That being said, I am also a realist. Iowa is a solid, consistent program--one that seemingly has a lifetime contact with 8-4, unlimited Bloomin’ Onions, and the early morning BTN slot.
And, truthfully, it could be worse--much worse. Illinois has wallowed in mediocrity for--give or take--two decades. Minnesota is more nuisance than factor in the Big Ten West. And Nebraska--despite its pomp and circumstance--is always just one season (or one coach or one player) away from title contention. Or so its fans insist.
To paraphrase a Denny Green quote, we know who we are: solid—occasionally spectacular. And when compared to our not so illustrious rivals (Iowa State and Minnesota--take a seat), 8-4--and limitless Coconut Shrimp--is more than respectable.
But I have a nagging question: Should we expect more out of Iowa football?
And the answer: probably not.
Hear me out: We see tantalizing glimpses of Iowa greatness. 55-24 will always be a rallying cry for Iowa fans (a kind of “Where were you?” moment. For the record, I was fist pumping in Hawaii). When Iowa dumptrucks Ohio State or upends Michigan, it is natural to ask: Why can’t Iowa consistently be--to borrow P.J. Fleck’s favorite term--elite?
The answer: Iowa can be elite--most notably in a fluky, one-off matchup (see Ohio State). And, on occasion, the proverbial stars will align (a favorable schedule; experienced juniors returning for a senior season; a downturn for the blue blood(s) on Iowa’s schedule) and Iowa will deliver a memorable--even magical--season.
But those iconic seasons are few and far between--in part because of some fundamental realities.
Iowa’s recruiting disadvantages are well-documented. We live in a small population state--one where we have to compete with another Division One program for recruits. In a good year, Iowa produces about a dozen FBS prospects each year; Ohio, by comparison, churns out roughly 90 FBS prospects each year. Pennsylvania (another state with a monolithic program) averages over 50 FBS prospects per year. And unlike other programs in small population states--specifically Oregon with sugar daddy Phil Knight, Iowa doesn’t exude national cache. We don’t have ever-changing uniforms, a dynamic offensive style, or an innovative athletic director (Barta--we need more than profligate fundraising and the occasional throwback game) to sustain a national brand.
We are who we are--solid, consistent, and--more often than not--8-4.
Contributing to Iowa’s 8-4 revolving door, the college football arms race has leveled the playing field. Swimming in television revenue, every football program (worth its conference affiliation) has a shiny stadium, state of the art performance center, and an “on brand” social media message. University administrators--now more than ever--are financially incentivized to invest and then invest some more in State U’s football program. Circling back to our Hawkeyes, Iowa snacked on Wisconsin, Iowa State, and Northwestern during the Fry years (and, incidentally, before the college football arms race). The numbers: 15-2-1 against the Badgers; 17-3 versus the Wildcats; 16-4 against the Clones. This article describes Wisconsin football in the late 80s/early 90s; it was a mixture of apathy (10,000 fans not Jumpin’ Around) and penny-pinching (former Badger AD Joel Maturi confessed that the athletic department didn’t have the funds to change the players’ jersey). Over the past two plus decades--and, in part, because of Iowa’s generational dominance, all three Hawkeye rivals redoubled (and then some) their football investment. Those three bankable wins during the Fry era? Well, as of 2019, Wisconsin has surpassed the Hawks; Northwestern and Iowa are jostling to be the West bridesmaid; and Iowa State flirts with bowl eligibility most years (even if it is a backwater bowl sponsored by your local siding company).
More than lamenting Hawkeye fortunes, this article--at least I hope--serves as somewhat of a reality check. Over the past 40 years, Iowa has been an above average program--one that has been a relevant Big Ten player, if not power. But the neighborhood’s getting tougher (Rutgers, duly noted)--and Iowa’s inherent disadvantages don’t make the climb to Big Ten title contention any easier. The (black and gold) takeaway: Iowa is a cyclical power--predictably crashing the college football hierarchy once every four/five years before renewing its cycle of 7-5 and 8-4 "Groundhog Day" seasons.
Elite? Not quite. Expected? Well, Iowa football does have a standing reservation at the Outback.