Iowa fans want an encore, but have the Hawkeyes already played their greatest hits?
2015 was a season unlike any other for Iowa, the winningest campaign in program history that featured a perfect 12-0 regular season and a Big Ten West Division championship.
The success of the season was mildly dampened by constant outcries of a soft schedule permitting such a spectacular regular-season finish, and more so by back-to-back losses when the Hawkeyes played on the biggest stages: first to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, then to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
But considering the only other team to finish its regular season without a loss played for a national championship, those bemoaning the strength of schedule might be better off looking for something else to complain about.
“It’s tough to do. Looking back on the season, it is, it’s tough to do,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said last week during Big Ten Media Days. “Not a lot of teams did it last year. I think it was us and Clemson that had an undefeated regular season. There’s a reason that we were the only two teams that did it. I don’t care what your schedule was, it’s tough to do any way you slice it.”
As for those postseason losses, those were probably a bit more worrisome — that is if the Hawkeyes hope to be in a similar position in 2016. With another favorable road to a West Division title (Iowa’s four toughest games against Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska will all be played in Iowa City), this team has some very reasonable championship expectations.
“More than anything, we learned what it takes to get there, to play in a game like (the Big Ten title game) and play that close. But now we’ve got to know what it takes to win that game,” Beathard said. “To get to the Rose Bowl is a great achievement, but it’ll take a lot more to win one. We didn’t play very well, we didn’t show up ready to go that game. We know now, we’ve tasted it.
“We’ve tasted a 12-0 regular season, and we’ve tasted what it’s like to play in a Big Ten championship and then in a Rose Bowl. And we know what it’s going to take to win those games, hopefully.”
Of course, going 12-0 twice in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done. But Iowa has the experience of doing it once, and with a very similar schedule ahead of it — and with Beathard back alongside one of the nation’s top defensive backs in Desmond King — there’s no reason to think that another trip to Indy would be impossible.
The difference? Handling the expectations. Beathard said he doesn’t care about outside expectations, but history says the Hawkeyes might have quite a challenge ahead of them. Kirk Ferentz’s teams haven’t done the best job following up successful seasons. After the last double-digit-win season in 2009, which featured an Orange Bowl win, Iowa went just 8-5 in 2010. After winning a combined 31 games in 2002, 2003 and 2004, Iowa won seven, six and six games over the next three seasons, respectively.
Maintaining success hasn’t been Ferentz’s strong suit. Will that change in 2016?
“I think if you look back, there are years where we've handled that well. Like '09 and maybe 2003 and 2004. And then in those two seasons (2005 and 2010), that really gets down to just winning close games, doing little things right, those types of things. And I think it's that way in college football in general,” Ferentz said. “Certainly it's been that way at the University of Iowa for a long time. Little things do matter. They are big things. And our ability to handle little details and do little things well on a consistent basis typically is a measure of our success.
“And last year is a really good illustration of that. I think if you look at it all but one game, there weren't many games where we were in the last four minutes where anybody on our sideline felt very comfortable. All those games went down to the wire. They're extremely competitive, and that's just I think the nature of college football. It certainly is for us at Iowa. And for us to be successful we've got to be able to come out on the right side of those things and again it usually gets down to little detail things.”
Iowa is the preseason favorite of many to win the division and return to Indy, where unfinished business would be the talking point of the weekend. But of course there are plenty of opportunities to trip up along the way. The Hawkeyes won’t be the only contenders in what could still be a wide-open West: Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin will have their says.
But thanks to that schedule and the experience of being there before, it’d be hard to unseat the Hawkeyes just yet. So the mission is to do it all over again.
“I notice the difference. I’ve talked about it before. It’s not about becoming the hunter where we’re sneaking up on people. Now, we’re the team that’s being hunted,” King said. “People want to play us, people want to beat us. The four trophy games we have — Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska — they have empty trophy cases over there, and they want to get those back. So there’ll be teams that are coming back for us.”