Iowa football team still has a chance to do something significant from a win standpoint

Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week A.J. Epenesa closes in on Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan. Photo by Jasmine Vong

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - With a dangerous and talented Minnesota squad now out of the way, it’s pretty easy to picture the Iowa football team finishing 9-3 in the regular season.

No disrespect to vastly improved Illinois, which faces Iowa on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, and to Nebraska, which will host Iowa in the regular-season finale on Black Friday, but the Hawkeyes should win both of those games.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Iowa will win both games, but having two should-win games left on the regular-season schedule is much better than having two could-win games left on the schedule, at least on paper.

Iowa is favored by 11 points against 6-4 Illinois, which is a significant margin, and Iowa should be favored against Nebraska the following week, even with the game being played in Lincoln, Neb.

Win those two games and Iowa would be just one bowl victory from having a sixth double-digit win season under Kirk Ferentz, and that would be significant, considering Iowa has only had eight double-digit win seasons overall, with three having occurred under Hayden Fry in 1985, 1987 and 1991.

A double-digit win season isn’t quite what it used to be with teams now playing 12 games regular-season games instead of 11, but it’s still a significant accomplishment.

And Iowa still has a very realistic chance of doing it.

The only downside to finishing the regular season at 9-3 would be having to face a better opponent in a better bowl game for the 10th win, if that truly is a downside.

But winning 10 games shouldn’t come easy, and it never should be dismissed or minimized.

The three gut-wrenching losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin by a combined 14 points will forever help to define this season, but to finish 10-3 would also help to create a nice distraction.

Iowa finished 10-3 in 2003 with losses to Michigan State (20-10), Ohio State (19-10) and Purdue (27-14) by a combined 32 points.

That team failed to win a Big Ten title, but it also closed the season with three consecutive victories, including a 37-17 thumping of Florida in the Outback Bowl, after having been 7-3 overall.

The 2003 squad now gets at least mentioned when talking about the all-time great Hawkeye teams simply because it won 10 games. It is part of the three-year glory run under Kirk Ferentz, squeezed between the 11-2 Big Ten championship season in 2002 and the 10-2 Big Ten Championship season in 2004.

The 2003 team would have been thought of differently if it had finished 9-4 simply because nine wins isn’t a double-digit win season.

Nine wins is pretty good, but 10 wins is real good, and looks even better over time.

Nate Stanley’s legacy at quarterback would also look better over time if it included a 10-win season as a senior. It wouldn’t change the fact that Stanley failed to win a Big Ten title in three seasons as a starter, but he would join an elite group of Iowa quarterbacks with a 10-win season.

Chuck Long was the first Iowa quarterback to have a double-digit-win season as he led the 1985 squad to a 10-2 record and to a Big Ten title.

Two years later in 1987, Iowa finished 10-3 with Chuck Hartlieb playing quarterback and then Matt Rodgers led Iowa to a 10-1-1 record in 1991.

Brad Banks was the first quarterback under Kirk Ferentz to have a double-digit win season, leading Iowa to an 11-2 record, and to a share of the Big Ten title in 2002, while also finishing runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

Then came the 10-3 record in 2003 with Nathan Chandler playing quarterback, followed by a 10-2 record and a share of the conference title in 2004 with Drew Tate at quarterback.

Tate was also named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year that season as a sophomore.

Ricky Stanzi joined Iowa's double-digit win quarterback club by leading the 2009 team to an 11-2 record, as did C.J. Beathard when Iowa finished 12-2 in 2015.

The legend of junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa and junior offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs would also be enhanced by a 10-win season because individual greatness looks even better with team success.

Kirk Ferentz would quickly dismiss this topic because he never looks beyond the next game on the schedule. All that matters to Ferentz right now is getting an eighth win, and rightfully so.

But for those of us who don’t have to coach or play in the games for Iowa, it's fun sometimes to look at the big picture.

The fact that Iowa still could win 10 games without maybe even being an underdog is intriguing.

This narrative wouldn’t have near the credibility if Iowa had to play, let’s say, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the final two regular-season games for obvious reasons.

But with Illinois and Nebraska as the final two opponents, the path to 10 wins certainly looks within reach on paper.

And despite what some might think, there is no such thing as a bad 10-win season at Iowa.