By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The so-called Big Game is actually a big game for a change, even without Iowa State being ranked.
The Cyclones had a bye this past week and barely missed being ranked in the latest Associated Press top-25 poll, coming in at No. 26 on Sunday, while 2-0 Iowa climbed to 19th in the AP poll after pounding Rutgers 30-0 this past Saturday.
But even without being ranked, Iowa State is clearly on the rise and has high expectations - it was picked to finish third in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma and Texas - and the crew from ESPN GameDay coming to Ames this weekend to show for it.
The Iowa media treats this game every year like it’s the first moon landing, so imagine what this coming week will be like with Iowa ranked and Iowa State almost ranked, and with ESPN GameDay adding to the festivities.
I personally couldn’t care less that ESPN GameDay will be Ames on Saturday, and would feel the same if it were coming to Iowa City, as it did in 2006 for the Ohio State game.
But I also represent the minority in this case, so more power to the majority, who almost seem giddy that GameDay is coming to Ames.
My only hope for Saturday’s game, besides no injuries to the players, is that it lives up to the hype for a change.
But is that even possible with all of the hype that will lead up to Saturday’s game?
For the next five days, fans from both teams will be inundated with stories and articles and interviews about how the Iowa-Iowa State football game divides, unites and inspires families, and about the importance of earning state bragging rights.
It is similar in our state to the buildup to the Kentucky Derby, although, a college football game lasts for about three hours instead of barely two minutes.
The game often doesn’t live up to the hype, considering that 28 of the games have been decided by 10 or more points since the series was renewed in 1977. And that is well over half of the games.
There always are several stories within the main story when Iowa and Iowa State square off in football, and the current status of both teams probably tops the list this year.
Iowa State is clearly on the rise under fourth-year head coach Matt Campbell, while Iowa is holding steady under veteran head coach Kirk Fernetz as a perennial bowl team that is capable of winning at least seven to eight games every season.
Some have wondered if Iowa and Iowa State both can be successful in football at the same time because it hasn’t happened very often.
Iowa rose to national prominence and won two Rose Bowls under Forest Evashevski in the 1950s, while Iowa State only had one winning season during that decade.
Iowa State won at least eight games during four seasons in the 1970s, while Iowa won three or fewer games in seven seasons during the 1970s.
Iowa became a Big Ten power under Hayden Fry in the 1980s, while Iowa State only had three winning seasons during the 1980s and didn't win more than six games in any season.
Iowa State also set a school record for wins by finishing 9-3 in 2000, while Iowa finished 3-9 that same season.
So there is reason to wonder if both programs can sustain success at the same time.
Another storyline is whether this will be the year that the 39-year old Campbell finally gets the best of the 64-year old Ferentz on the scoreboard.
The Cyclones have made huge strides under Campbell, but still haven’t cleared the Hawkeye hurdle, losing the last four games in the series.
The situation at Iowa State is similar to when Ferentz rebuilt the Iowa program in that Ferentz was able to get over the hump despite losing his first four games against the Cyclones.
Campbell has led Iowa State to eight wins in each of the past two seasons, and that’s about as rebuilt as Iowa State has ever been.
“They are all tough,” Ferentz said this past Saturday when asked to comment on facing Iowa State in the next game. “There’s nothing easy about playing college football, just ask any player. But every preparation is important and they are all going to be challenges.”
Ferentz used to be criticized when Iowa struggled to beat Iowa State for not emphasizing the game enough, but that was just a convenient excuse to try to explain why Iowa would to lose to the Cyclones despite having what many felt was superior talent.
Ferentz has silenced that criticism by winning 11 of the last 16 games in the series, including the last four in a row.
But the Cyclone brand is growing in popularity throughout the state, thanks largely to Campbell’s impact, and especially in Central Iowa.
The best way for Iowa to quell that growth is to win the so-called big game, but a victory only carries so much weight with it not being a conference game.
There is life after the big game, win or lose.
Iowa proved that in 2002 when it lost to Iowa State 36-31 after blowing a 17-point halftime lead at Kinnick Stadium, but the Hawkeyes still finished undefeated in the Big Ten for the first time in 80 years and 11-2 overall that season.
Iowa State also proved it in each of the past two seasons by bouncing back from a loss to Iowa to win eight games.
This game, despite all of its hype, hardly is an indicator of what to expect for the rest of the season.
Iowa’s 30-0 victory over Rutgers this past Saturday had just ended minutes before when senior quarterback Nate Stanley was asked to look ahead to next Saturday's game in Ames.
His answer was predictably short and evasive.
“It’s always a crazy environment when you play there,” Stanley said. “The fans are tough, and it’s different playing against a Big 12 team.
“But as far as looking at them right now, I’m just going to go enjoy this win with my teammates.”
Stanley picked up his first road win as a starter against Iowa State in 2017 as he threw five touchdown passes during a 44-41 overtime thriller, including the game winner to current starting receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who was true freshman in 2017.
If Saturday’s game is anything like the nail-biter from two years ago, we should consider ourselves lucky, especially if your team wins.
GameDay should also consider itself lucky.