Just last week, I wrote an article laying out how Iowa could still make the National Championship, even at a BCS Rank of 15. That's out the window. I honestly believed everything I wrote. But, now it's time to get brutal in my honesty.
After seven games, the Hawkeyes are 5-2. The National Title is out. The Big 10 title is in jeopardy. Even a shot at a BCS bowl is becoming a long shot.
Buckle up; it's going to be a heck of a ride.
For the First Time, I Actually Wished We Had Hayden Fry Back
I was going to start out talking about how Iowa's defense isn't necessarily "one of the best in the nation," as I've heard so much lately. However, Al Namias IV already covered that and did better than I probably could have anyway. Thanks Al and well done.
So instead, I'll move on to the second bit I was going to discuss.
With all due respect to the legendary Silver Fox, I've been completely and utterly impressed with Kirk Ferentz. He's been a solid recruiter, a classy individual, a solid tactician and an all-around great coach.
What's more, I very much agree with Ferentz's philosophy. If the Hawkeyes are fundamentally sound, there's no need to do anything other than go straight at your opponents and dare them to stop you (or get by you, as the case may be).
With the players Iowa has had over the last decade, that philosophy has worked more often than it has not. It's respectable, it's honest and it's effective.
However, one thing I always admired about Hayden Fry was his willingness to gamble. His teams didn't have to be in dire straights before he'd pull out a flea-flicker, a naked bootleg or a hook-and-lateral. He'd work up some trickery now and again, just to keep opposing coaches wondering when he might pull a black rabbit out of a white hat.
Saturday, Iowa could have used a little dose of the Silver Fox. Down 31-30, with barely a minute on the clock, everyone knew what Iowa was going to do. Worst of all, Bret Bielema knew what Iowa was going to do. He is, after all, an Iowa boy himself.
It's one thing to say "we just need to execute." It's something else to expect your team to execute against a defense that knows exactly what you're going to do. A solid defense to boot.
Needing to get inside the Badger 35, a little trick play might have been enough to pull the Hawkeyes within range. That is, if it didn't garner them six points, first.
Even Bret Bielema was willing to take a little risk with the game on the line. Their fake punt kept the drive alive and allowed them to eventually make the go-ahead score. Without it, Iowa would have undoubtedly run out the clock and secured a 30-24 win.
Those are the chances you sometimes have to take. Hayden would have taken them. Ferentz wouldn't. Saturday, I missed Hayden.
Quit Trying To Play the Rodney Dangerfield Card.
We get no respect, I tell you. No respect.
Yes you do! Er...Iowa does! In fact, most teams in the Big 10 flat-out feared Iowa. The Hawks have a solid defense, tempered by a better-than-advertised offense. They're dangerous, no matter how you look at them.
Special teams play leaves a lot to be desired, but two-out-of-three isn't bad.
The thing is this: Playing for respect is a great motivator when you're not getting that respect. Once you're getting it though, you've got to find another reason to get motivated to do your best.
Iowa doesn't seem to know how to do that. Maybe it's because they've spent the last three decades trying to prove to people that they're an elite team.
Every time people start to believe however, they fold like a house of cards. They don't know what to do with national respect when they get it.
The answer is fairly simple. You've got to earn every win, on every down, of every game, every year. When the respect is coming your way, you've got to prove you deserve it. When the pundits are saying you're pretty darned good, you've got to show them you're even better than they say you are.
Better yet, forget about what anyone thinks altogether. Play every single down like it is the one down between you and a national title. For all you know, it just may be.
I, for one, am getting a little tired of the Hawkeyes playing "lights out" when no one is looking, only to become second-tier when the spotlight is on.
Get your heads on straight! You're better than this!
Conservatism Is Killing Iowa
No, I'm not talking politics here. Actually, this feeds in with my first point.
I can respect a coach who thinks enough to want to protect the football when his team has the lead. However, despite the handful of people who are still saying that the Big 10 is weak, the conference is actually incredibly strong this year.
There have been a hand full of out-of-conference matches against tough opponents. Ohio State handled Miami (FL), Penn State was plastered by Alabama, Iowa lost narrowly to Arizona and Illinois hung fairly tight with Missouri.
Obviously, that doesn't look so great when your tough OOC games end up in a 1-3 record.
You can soften that a little by pointing out that Penn State is not one of the conference elite teams this year. Plus, had Iowa not surrendered 14 points out of sheer stupidity, they would have beaten Arizona. Really, the Big 10 should be 2-2 and still able to claim the Penn State caveat.
Plus, considering that Missouri is 7-0 right now, Illinois 23-13 loss doesn't look so bad.
At any rate, this conference is fairly evenly matched throughout the top half.
When you're facing opposition that is so close to you in talent, you've got to be willing to push the envelop a little. You have to assume that they can score points on your defense.
When you get them down, you have to stand on their throats for a minute or two to make sure they're not getting back up.
Of course, I'm not talking literally there, but from a coaching standpoint, it appears that Kirk Ferentz is completely unwilling to run the score up on anybody. I can appreciate a coach who takes mercy on a little guy and allows them to save a little face. That's just class.
However, when you're facing a tough conference opponent, you've got to be willing to punch the gas! Time and again, this year and in the past, I've watched Iowa get a 10 or 14 point lead then start running on first and second down.
That's got to stop. As good as Adam Robinson is, the teams in the Big 10 will shut him down if he's the only thing they have to worry about for two out of three plays per drive. Iowa is, in effect, turning off their offense and forcing their defense to win games.
That's fine when your defense is clearly able to stop your opponent. When there are real possibilities that your opponent can put up more points, you've got to keep playing as if the game were tied. You've got to put them away, and then allow your defense to determine the margin of victory.
The Rose Bowl May Not Come through Iowa City Any More.
We'll leave the whole National Championship discussion out of it. That's a done deal. Iowa's out, and there's virtually zero chance of getting back into it.
Coming into the season however, Iowa was practically a lock to face Ohio State for the conference title. That's all changed as well, and Iowa's 31-30 loss to Wisconsin also put them on the back burner for a shot at the Rose Bowl.
Here's how it breaks down.
Michigan State is undefeated. Iowa can take care of that (hopefully) this coming week. An Iowa win would leave the Spartans with one loss in the conference.
The remainder of Sparty's schedule is very, very winnable. They host Minnesota and Purdue, then go on the road to take on Penn State. The Nittany Lions aren't playing very good football right now, so I'd chalk that up as a Spartan victory. They really should end the season no worse than 11-1.
Wisconsin also has one loss in the conference. Now that they've faced MSU, OSU, and Iowa, the roughest part of their schedule is over too.
The Badgers travel to Purdue this week then host Indiana. They go back on the road to Michigan and end up at home against Northwestern.
Michigan and Northwestern could be interesting, but the Badgers have been playing good enough ball to beat them both. Assume for now that they'll end the season with just the one loss.
Ohio State also has just one loss. They travel to Minnesota, host Penn State, travel to Iowa, and end up at home against Michigan. They should end the season at either 11-1 or 10-2, but no worse.
Now, assuming that Iowa beats Michigan State and Ohio State, that would knock the Buckeyes out of the race, and there could be three teams tied conference co-champions.
Per the Rose Bowl selection rules, the first tie-breaker would be the team with the best record against the other two teams. Since Iowa beat (will beat, in this scenario) Michigan State, who beat Wisconsin, who beat Iowa, it's still a tie.
Then it goes to the team who faced the fewer number of FCS opponents. All three teams faced one FCS opponent. Still a tie.
Then it comes down to overall record. In this scenario, both MSU and Wiscy would be 11-1, while Iowa would be 10-2.
Good bye Iowa.
Iowa now needs to beat Michigan State, and hope that Wisconsin loses another conference game. If Iowa fails to beat Michigan State, it really won't matter what they do against Ohio State as far as the conference race is concerned. They'll be out of the picture.
Their destiny is no longer in their hands. From now on, they're going to become big fans of every team that faces both Wisconsin and Michigan State. Being a fan of Ohio State's opponents wouldn't hurt either.
Iowa lacks Attitude
Let me clear here. I don't do the whole prima donna thing. I think it's childish and there's no place for it at any level of sport. I realize that I may be a little old fashioned in that sense, but I adhere to the ideal of sportsmanship and that leaves no room for such behavior.
Now I'll get off of that soap box and onto yet another. I'm actually planning on writing a whole article on this subject after the season is done, but I think it bears mentioning here.
What's the difference between Iowa and Alabama?
Believe it or not, it's not talent. Throw away the whole "five star" junk that you get from Scout or Rivals. They do the best they can with the information they have at their disposal. It's unreliable information though, and incomplete too.
Iowa is as talented as any team in the country. The coaching staff at Iowa does an exceptional job of prepping their players for this level of play. What's more, they do a great job of getting just the kind of players they know they can mold into next-level players.
The difference between Iowa and Alabama is attitude.
The Crimson Tide come into every season expecting to play for an SEC title and a shot at the national title. They don't come in hoping for it. They come in expecting it.
By contrast, Iowa comes into the season hoping for a 10-win season and a shot at the conference title.
There's an old saying that goes: "Shoot for the moon. If you miss, at least you land amongst the stars."
There's another saying goes: "Dress for the job you want."
Both are basically saying that you've got to go for what you really want. That's not to say that you need to be cocky, but you should be honest about what you want.
If Iowa only wants a 10-win season, then we fans are getting sold short. This team is capable of winning a conference title. They're capable of challenging for a national title. I want to see both.
So should the players and so too should the coaches.
Where Does Iowa Need To Go from Here?
Okay, I'll get off my soap box(es) now. Let's put it all into perspective.
Iowa has to realize what their capable of, but they also have to realize that it won't be given to them. At this point, it would be far easier for Iowa to end up with a 7-5 record than it would for them to end up with a 10-2 record.
Michigan State is up next, and they're playing like conference champions. Following them is a 4-3 Indiana team that can't be taken too lightly. Their defense is as weak as they come, but their offense is fully capable of putting up big points.
After Indiana, Iowa travels to Northwestern. The Wildcats have beaten Iowa four of the last five times they've met. Plus, they gave Michigan State all they could handle for three quarters and eleven minutes of the fourth. That game is in no way a gimme for the Hawks.
Then comes the showdown with Ohio State. The Buckeyes looked very beatable against Wisconsin, but they battered Purdue this past weekend and have taken care of everyone else on the schedule fairly convincingly as well. They have their own conference aspirations to deal with, so they will be fired up to take down Iowa.
Finally, Iowa faces Minnesota. The Golden Gophers shouldn't provide too much trouble for Iowa, unless things take a serious turn for the worse.
By that time however, Iowa could be 6-5 and just hoping to get a halfway decent bowl bid. It could be far shy of the BCS bowl they've been dreaming of. It could be mediocre.
Iowa has to take control of every game early on, keep their foot on the gas until they're thoroughly dominating (if possible), and not worry about character points. Their season is riding on it.
The Hawks need to develop the attitude that they can still win the conference title and play like they deserve it.
Maybe this all sounds like sour grapes, and maybe to a point it is. However. Iowa has the talent to be undefeated right now and securely in the national title hunt.
That they're not at that point has as much to do with what's going on upstairs as it does anything else. It's time to take a look in the mirror and get brutally honest about what's holding them back.
Where they go from here is almost entirely up to them. Sadly, it's not as much up to them as it used to be. But it is up to them to figure out why.