It's hard to believe now, but once upon a time Iowa was the dominant team in the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry. Iowa was the team that Wisconsin wanted to be. Iowa won 10 in a row from 1985 to 1996 and 18 of 19 from 1977 to 1996; the only game Iowa didn't win (1984) was a 10-10 tie. We know what happened then: Barry Alvarez, who learned at the foot of Hayden Fry, took over at Wisconsin and began to transform the program into the consistent force we know it as today. Alvarez's model, of course, was Iowa.
Under Ferentz, Wisconsin won the first three in a row over Iowa (including a 41-3 bloodletting in 1999), but Ferentz got the advantage after that -- Iowa won four in a row, including the deeply-satisfying Big Ten Championship-clinching victory in Iowa City in 2004 and the spoiling of Barry Alvarez Day in Madison in 2005. Iowa won six of eight against Wisconsin after that initial three-game losing skid under Ferentz. During that span, Iowa won two Big Ten titles, had four ten-win seasons, and made a pair of Orange Bowl appearances. Then came 2010.
2010 flipped the script in the narrative of the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry and marked a turning point in the fortunes of both teams. Including that game, Wisconsin has gone 5-1 against Iowa in the last six games of the rivalry. Since 2010, Wisconsin has won three conference titles. Their win over Iowa yesterday also clinched a Big Ten West title for them this year, which means that they'll have appeared in five of the first seven Big Ten Championship Games; they've gone 2-2 in those games so far. That stretch has included three Rose Bowl trips and a Cotton Bowl appearance last year; they seem poised to add another New Year's Six bowl to their bowl record this year. Overall, they've gone 3-4 in bowl games during that span and while that includes three painful Rose Bowl losses... they still made the Rose Bowl in back-to-back-to-back years, which is not too shabby. Iowa, meanwhile, has no Big Ten championships during that span and one appearance in a Big Ten Championship Game. They've appeared in one New Year's Six bowl game in that stretch, the 2016 Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin is who Iowa wants to be, both in terms of aesthetics and accomplishments. They preach running the ball, running the ball... and then running the ball some more. When they pass it's usually via play action and it often involves a tight end. They play stifling, constricting defense that grinds the life out of opponents. They have solid special teams. They play smart, disciplined football. They are, arguably, the Platonic ideal of Iowa football under Ferentz.
And, lately, they've been crushing Iowa head-to-head. Wisconsin has had three different defensive coordinators in their last three games against Iowa; all three have crafted defenses that completely flummoxed the Iowa offense. Iowa hasn't mustered more than 236 yards of offense in any of those games; they've exceeded 290 yards of offense just once in their last five games against Wisconsin. Iowa's offense has scored two touchdowns in its last three games against the Badgers and it's averaging just 6.3 points per game in those contests (if you include Josh Jackson's two pick-sixes yesterday, Iowa's scoring output leaps up to a whopping... 11 points per game). Game after game, the Iowa offense has looked utterly helpless against Wisconsin. The defense bailed them out with a titanic performance in 2015's 10-6 slugfest, but they haven't been able to pull off the same heroics the last two seasons (the defense gave it a go this year, going so far as to force four turnovers and score 14 points on their own... and Iowa still lost by 24). Granted, that phenomenon is not exactly unique to the Iowa-Wisconsin game; the Iowa defense held Michigan State and Northwestern to 27 total points in regulation this year, but that effort was for naught because the offense could only muster 10 points apiece in those games.
Obviously, things could always be worse. We only have to look to our neighbors across the Missouri River to see how badly things can go awry. A floor around 7-5 is not the worst thing. It can be a frustrating thing at times, sure, but it's not a bad thing. A bad thing is the floor completely falling out. 20 years ago Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida, and Florida State were the kings of college football, they competed for (and won) national titles and seemed entrenched in the Top 5 of the polls.
Final AP Poll in 1995 with 2017 records:
1. Nebraska (4-6)
2. Florida (3-6)
3. Tennessee (4-5)
4. Florida State (3-5)
5. Colorado (5-5)
— Matt Smith (@MattSmithCFB) November 11, 2017
Right now, all four teams have losing records -- Nebraska and Tennessee are both 4-6 and Florida and Florida State are both 3-6 -- and in danger of missing bowl games. For some of those teams (Florida State), this may be an aberration and a temporary blip. For others, it's another data point in an increasingly unpleasant trend; Nebraska is staring down the barrel of their second losing season in three years and Tennessee had three straight winning seasons before this year, they had four straight losing seasons before that.
But we know more is possible because we see it year after year with Wisconsin. They deal with many of the same limitations that Iowa does, they play an extremely similar style to Iowa... but they flourish. So it hardly seems unreasonable to not just covet what they have, but to feel like it's acutely attainable. But to reach those goals, they're going to have to get through Wisconsin. The Badgers are the gatekeeper in the Big Ten West and, as Ric Flair so famously said, to be the man, you have to beat the man.
Until Iowa's offense can solve the riddle of Wisconsin's defense, they're going to keep coming up short in these games. They're going to keep failing to meet expectations and they're going to continue missing out on opportunities to be where we -- Iowa fans, coaches, and players -- want to be. We've seen flashes of brilliance from the Iowa offense under Brian Ferentz this year -- most notably against Iowa State and Ohio State -- the question now becomes whether he can turn those flashes into more consistent performance. If he can do that, maybe Iowa can finally get around the Wisconsin-shaped boulder blocking their path to success. He won't have to wait long for his next opportunity to get a crack at the Wisconsin defense -- Iowa has just six more games (three this year including a bowl game and three non-conference games next fall) before they see Wisconsin again, in the 2018 Big Ten opener for both teams.
Let's hope we see some progress then; I'm tired of seeing Iowa take a backseat in this rivalry. The Big Ten West is there for the taking with Nebraska in shambles, Illinois in unending disarray, Minnesota and Purdue rebuilding, and Northwestern in its perpetual state of Northwestern-ness. Iowa and Wisconsin have been the two most dominant and successful teams in the Big Ten West over the last 20+ years, but for Iowa to get back on top, they need to get past Wisconsin.