IOWA CITY, Iowa — Let’s play a little game called “Guess When This Happened?”
The first card from the deck displays the following information: In this particular year, the Iowa Hawkeyes are 5-3 through eight games with three one-score defeats. The United States is locked in a partisan election-year battle. The Chicago Cubs boast Major League Baseball’s best record entering the postseason.
Need a little more help? How about this quote.
“I think things are a little bit more extreme than they used to be,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But that’s the world we live in, and it could be worse. We could be in politics, I guess. It could be a lot worse. I voted the other day, by the way.”
You guess 2016. Buzzer sounds. While the answer technically isn’t wrong, it isn’t correct, either. The actual year was 2008. Iowa stared at 5-3 entering a late-October bye week, just like this year. The 2008 Hawkeyes’ three pre-bye losses came by a touchdown or less, as have this year’s defeats. Iowa also had a crack at a top-3 team at home the second Saturday in November on national television. That will happen in a few weeks for the 2016 Hawkeyes.
The coincidence is striking. The 2008 had an eventual Doak Walker Award winner in running back Shonn Greene. The current group has cornerback Desmond King, the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner. Iowa’s defensive end tandem were sophomores in 2008, and so is this year’s duo. The 2008 starting middle linebacker was junior Pat Angerer, who wore No. 43. This year’s starting middle linebacker is junior Josey Jewell, who also wears 43. Both all-Big Ten players had 16 tackles in their eighth game, which happened to be at home against the Wisconsin Badgers.
The 2008 Hawkeyes promptly lost their next game at Illinois, which finished 5-7. Then they soared, knocking off No. 3 Penn State 24-23 on a last-second field goal. The Hawkeyes then survived 22-17 against a 4-8 Purdue squad before burying old rival Minnesota 55-0 at the Metrodome. A 31-10 win against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl capped that season.
Most Iowa fans consider that 9-4 season a success. It propelled the Hawkeyes into what many around here call Ferentz 2.0, which included an 11-2 record in 2009. The 2008 squad regularly started 14 eventual NFL draft picks and that doesn’t include the dominant defensive tackle tandem of Mitch King and Matt Kroul.
But the parallels stop with the eye test. The 2008 version improved weekly, save for the inexplicable loss at Illinois. By the end of November, Iowa arguably was the Big Ten’s best team. That team had talent, grit and a physical edge. It certainly was not a team anyone would vote to play, if given a choice.
This year’s version had higher expectations and lacked the quarterback controversy that mired the 2008 squad. This team suffers from inconsistency and is woefully deficient of offensive playmakers. But with one month left to its football season, this year’s Hawkeyes have a chance to parallel the 2008 season finish. If they do, then that’s worth celebrating, the overall record be damned. But if they don’t, then the season is a complete disappointment.
Yes, that’s a fine line between a 3-1 record in November and 2-2. If Iowa finishes with two more losses, that’s 7-5 in the big picture. That’s a one-way train back to Mediocreville, a place Iowa fans know too well. That’s where Iowa resided in 2010, 2011 and 2014. The Hawkeyes didn’t even reach there in 2012 with a 4-8 record. It barely passed that junction in 2013 at 8-4 and, of course, circled happy laps around Mediocreville last year with 12 wins.
Three wins would mean so much more in perception for this crew. That includes at least two wins over the blue-blood trio Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. That would give the fans something for which to remember, a “yeah but” when discussing the 2016 season. So far, it’s an “oh well.”
I know, for many of you, handing out anything less than a stack of pink slips to the coaching staff would fall short of positive development. But that’s not where I’m going, at least not yet. The season’s not quite over and there’s a chance the Hawkeyes can make this a positive campaign. But Iowa faces a more difficult path to 8-4 than its 2008 predecessor.
A 3-1 finish this year would surpass the 2008 version, if only because that team didn’t have a road game at a team like Penn State. It also didn’t have a current top-10 squad in Nebraska on its schedule. This year’s Michigan is on par with that year’s Nittany Lions.
Likewise if Iowa finished 0-4 or 1-3 in November, it’s a disaster. You can’t sell a season where you cut your win total in half and call it good on next spring’s I-Club circuit. The malaise of 2010-2014 is too fresh in fans’ minds. Iowa officials would be lucky if next year’s ticket drop was only 17 percent, as it was from 2014 to 2015.
In a season that began with high expectations, anything short of another Big Ten West Division title is a disappointment. However, there’s still a chance for Iowa to finish its season past the dividing line between good (8-4) and mediocre (7-5). The Hawkeyes still have a month to make it happen.