It's extremely difficult to come up with much of a statistical, scientific basis for what happens in a given football season. There are only thirteen games in the season, if things go well. Unless you're moving at a breakneck pace, your entire team will run less than 2000 plays in a season, each with a different set of players, formations, and plays. A baseball team will run 2000 plays in a month with far fewer variables to control.
As a result, it's easy to fall victim to generalizations based on small sample sizes in football. The success of a season, especially when you play with Iowa's style, can be determined on the bounce of an oblong ball in one direction or the other, or the gust of wind that blows a game-winning field goal off-course. A single injury can mean the difference between a good, seven-win season, and the ten-win runs that get tickets sold and coaches paid.
With all of that said, and with Hlas beating me to this particular punch this week, the Iowa-Wisconsin game has become a reliable predictor of Iowa's greater success in a given season. During Kirk Ferentz's eighteen previous seasons as head coach at Iowa, his teams have finished ranked in the top 20 six times. Iowa beat Wisconsin in all six of those seasons. In the twelve seasons where Iowa finished out of the money, the Hawkeyes have gone just 1-9 against the Badgers (the sole win was 2005, a rare upset against yet another ten-win Badger outfit). It doesn't work the other way -- Wisconsin averaged nearly nine wins in years where it lost to Ferentz's Iowa, and has recorded double-digit wins in three of those years -- but the Hawkeyes' success against Wisconsin has become as good a barometer for Iowa's eventual success as we have.
Oddly enough, though, the Wisconsin game is not in the pantheon of premiere Iowa games. The Badgers have unquestionably been the most successful Big Ten team west of Lake Michigan over the last two decades, success above Michigan and Penn State over that time and not far behind Ohio State. But Wisconsin is also a border rival fashioned from our own rib by a former Iowa assistant and continued by a former Iowa player. Iowa can't look in any kind of mirror and see Ohio State or Michigan, with its geographic, historical and other inherent advantages. Iowa can only see itself in a true mirror. But Iowa can visit the funhouse and see Wisconsin staring back, a different-but-not-that-different system built on the same things: Offensive linemen, redshirting, player development, scouting. Because of that similarity, Iowa fans don't see most Wisconsin wins as particularly epic. Even the most consequential Wisconsin wins -- 2004 and 2015, for example -- don't enter the same pantheon as similar wins over other programs. There's respect, but there's not awe.
The Michigan State and Northwestern losses effectively took Iowa out of contention for the Big Ten title in 2017; Iowa would have to beat Wisconsin Saturday, win the remaining two games, have Wisconsin lose to Michigan and Minnesota in the following two weeks, and have Northwestern lose one more just to get a tie for the Big Ten West title. The Ohio State win guarantees that this season will be seen with at least a modest level of success.
With three weeks left, all that remains are those modest mid-level goals: Eight wins, a New Year's Day bowl game, a top 25 ranking, a case full of traveling trophies. If the Hawkeyes can run the table and post nine victories before the postseason begins, the heat generated by the 2018 hype will keep us warm through the offseason. If Iowa stumbles to the finish, 2017 could live alongside 2005 and 2006 among the seasons that could have been special had those things broke the right way. And so we move to Saturday, with that most common of scenarios so clearly in play: Wisconsin determines the season.