It's that time of year when folks are talking about resolutions, ready to turn the calendar on a new year.
But for many Hawkeye football fans, it's still hard to let go of 2014's angst.
They watched their team, expected to challenge for a Big Ten divisional championship against a generous menu of opponents, finish an unsatisfying 7-5.
How do you explain a seven-win season on a schedule made for 10 after returning your best talent, including an Outland Trophy winner, at almost every key position? Coach Kirk Ferentz summed things up by saying "That's football" four times and "That's sports" once during his 10-minute news conference after the painful 37-34 season-ending overtime loss to Nebraska.
"That's football" got picked apart in some circles in the hours and days that followed.
Here's what Hawkeye reporter Chad Leistikow and columnist Rick Brown are looking for leading up to Iowa's Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl game against Tennessee. Andrea Melendez
Perhaps that was Ferentz's way of saying that critical plays that went Iowa's way in 2013 (during an 8-4 regular season) just didn't this fall.
To be clear, Ferentz hasn't made excuses.
"You've got to live in the present," he said.
But in last Sunday's remarks in accepting a TaxSlayer Bowl berth vs. Tennessee on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla., the 16th-year Iowa coach did share how he viewed 2013 vs. 2014.
"It's interesting," Ferentz began, "if you look over the last two years, we were 7-3 after 10 games this year. And 6-4 after last year. With the difference (being) winning the last two ball games (in 2013)."
Playing the what-if game can resemble pouring salt water on an open wound, but perhaps it can also be therapeutic for Iowa fans wanting to channel their inner Elsa from "Frozen" and let it go.
There are probably hundreds of 2014 moments or choices Hawkeye coaches, players and fans would like to have back.
Below are nine of the biggest ones that shaped Iowa's season into 7-5. (Four of these come from the Nebraska game for a reason: It was the most agonizing of the five losses. None of these come from the 51-14 loss to Minnesota: That was a bloodbath that one or two correctly placed Band-Aids couldn't have healed.)
One Jake falls down, another falls apart
Things are going 2-0 Iowa's way against Iowa State. The lead is 14-3. Quarterback Jake Rudock has been sharp enough, 11-for-14 for 111 yards. He wings a ball over the middle — just as tight end Jake Duzey trips and falls while making an inside cut. The ball sails into the arms of Iowa State's T.J. Mutcherson — the 0-2 Cyclones' first takeaway in three games and Rudock's first interception in 108 attempts.
If Duzey stays on his feet, maybe it's just an incompletion instead of a gift-wrapped interception, and Iowa State doesn't have a short field to score seven points that makes it 14-10. Rudock looks tentative the rest of the game, completing five of his final 10 passes for 35 yards.
"Obviously, we want it back," Rudock said afterward.
Regrettable fumble No. 1
The Hawkeyes are 5-1 at this point, and things are going very well at Maryland. The game's first snap results in a Drew Ott interception, and before you can say Henry Krieger-Coble the Hawkeyes are up 14-0. Maryland answers with seven, the teams trade three-and-outs, and now Iowa's driving again. Rudock hits Duzey across the middle for 19 yards on second-and-10. Duzey lunges between four Terrapin defenders. One of those eight arms forces a costly fumble past midfield.
Maryland ball. Maryland momentum. Iowa's meltdown begins.
Regrettable fumble No. 2
Iowa leads Nebraska 10-0 late in the first half, and Desmond King picks off Huskers QB Tommy Armstrong. Sit on the ball with 1:22 left or try to score? Ferentz's vote is clear with the next two play calls. Rudock underthrows incomplete deep to Damond Powell (it could have been caught). On the next play, he finds Powell for a 6-yard gain, but Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell holds the speedy receiver upright long enough for Joshua Kalu to force and recover a fumble — Iowa's fourth first-half turnover. Instead of a possible 13-0 or 17-0 lead for Iowa, it's 10-7 after Nebraska scores a touchdown 20 seconds before halftime.
"As unclean as we were playing in that first half," Ferentz said, "to be up 10-0 would have been great."
Nebraska has a pulse.
Deep ball lands with a thud
Despite the way the first half ends against Nebraska, Iowa is back on its feet. Ott's "butt-punt" return touchdown has Iowa ahead 24-7 late in the third quarter. A broken coverage gives Nebraska life again, and it's 24-14, and Iowa is about to answer. Rudock drops back to pass, and Powell has juked his defender down the middle. There's nobody within eight yards. Perfect play call. Rudock throws … he overthrows.
"That's on the quarterback," ESPN's Matt Millen said. "It's wide-open. Just ... you can't overthrow him."
Turnovers are one thing on a throw. Giving away a ready-made, 78-yard touchdown is another. Instead, Iowa punts to Nebraska. Oh, mercy, punts to Nebraska …
Guys, what was the plan again?
How do the Huskers run one offensive play and score 14 rapid-fire points to shock Kinnick Stadium in grabbing a 28-24 lead? By Iowa not punting the ball away from return man De'Mornay Pierson-El (or out of bounds). What the plan was, Ferentz didn't say. He just said it didn't work out. After saving one return touchdown by tackling Pierson-El after a 41-yard runback, Iowa punter Dillon Kidd boots it into his bread basket again. Pierson-El sprints free for an 80-yard touchdown return with 12:06 to play.
"Once they kicked it to me again, I was like, 'Seriously?' " Pierson-El said. "Thanksgiving was the other day, and that is what I'm thankful for."
Still, the Hawkeyes had a good fourth-quarter chance ... like they did in all four non-Minnesota losses.
ISU loss: right through the hands
Cyclones ball on their own 32, score tied 17-all, less than 4 minutes to play, second-and-3. Iowa State QB Sam Richardson wings a pass to the left side, and young Hawkeye linebacker Bo Bower reads it perfectly. It looks like a certain pick-six and a Hawkeye touchdown. Instead, the football spirals straight through Bower's hands — and into Allen Lazard's for a 9-yard gain. First down. Drive continues. Iowa never gets the ball back.
"Bo Bower had a chance to be a hero," ESPN analyst Chris Spielman said.
Instead, Cole Netten is. The Cyclone kicker's 42-yard field goal with 2 seconds left gives Iowa State one of its two wins all season, 20-17.
Maryland loss: Paging Greg Davis
Iowa's early 14-point lead is gone, but the fourth quarter is here and the damage is only a 24-21 deficit. Iowa is going into the wind but has the ball, and Mark Weisman is averaging 7.8 yards a carry. Keep grinding, right? Instead, Iowa's first six plays of the fourth quarter are all passes: five incompletions and a pick-six for Maryland on a bad third-and-10 throw by Rudock.
Iowa calls 36 plays in the fourth quarter, and fans wonder if offensive coordinator Greg Davis lost the pages that feature handoffs. There were none. The only rushing plays were Rudock scrambles and sacks. Maryland builds a 38-21 lead and hangs on. Davis would probably like a fourth-quarter mulligan.
"Everybody's hurting, and everyone's embarrassed," Ferentz said afterward.
Wisconsin loss: all turned around
It's third-and-8 for Wisconsin at Iowa's 48 with 2:05 left, and the Hawkeyes need one stop to perhaps complete what Ferentz calls his team's finest performance of 2014. The Badgers' defense is toast after Rudock-to-Duzey has cut Wisconsin's lead to 26-24 under the Kinnick Stadium lights. The crowd is roaring. One stop, and 7-3 Iowa can make a run at a winning field-goal drive to set up a virtual Big Ten West title game six days later against Nebraska.
Joel Stave, the less mobile of Wisconsin's two QBs, rolls out left. But the nearest Hawkeye, linebacker Quinton Alston, has his back turned, chasing Melvin Gordon into pass coverage. Sean Draper's help arrives too late. Stave lumbers for 12 yards and a game-clinching first down.
Nebraska loss: officially, a lousy finish
Iowa has persevered through the four first-half turnovers, the missed receivers and two big punt returns to reclaim a 31-28 lead against Nebraska. A second straight 8-4 season is near. With 1:36 remaining on second-and-10, Huskers star receiver Kenny Bell and Iowa defensive back Greg Mabin get tangled up. Incomplete pass. Flag thrown. Ferentz claps, indicating his confidence in a flag for offensive pass intererence.
The call instead goes against Mabin. Replays safely cast doubt on the call. Instead of third-and-10 (or second-and-20), it's an 11-yard penalty and a first down to the Nebraska 39. The Huskers march to the tying field goal, force overtime and win The Heroes Trophy.
"We lost five ballgames," Ferentz would say. "Each one's a different story."
So, about these nine plays/moments/decisions …
Remember: A year ago, Iowa and Northwestern were tied 10-all with the Wildcats deep in Hawkeye territory in the closing minutes. Kain Colter ran nine yards left to Iowa's 21 but an illegal block negated the gain. On the next play, a botched pitch-out gave Iowa the ball back, new life and the opportunity to snatch a 17-10 overtime win.
A few weeks later, Michigan trailed 24-21 but was driving for a tying field goal or winning touchdown. But Anthony Hitchens stripped the ball from Devin Gardner and recovered at the Iowa 31 with 2:12 to play. The Hawkeyes won. They carried that momentum into Lincoln, Neb., six days later in a 38-17 rout of Nebraska.
Two plays that spawned 8-4 from 6-6?
Is this year's team 9-3 instead of 7-5 if a few of the above nine plays unfolded differently?
Bottom line, the difference for a program like Iowa's with slim margin for error is players making key plays and humans making the right decisions. And those things didn't happen enough for the Hawkeyes this fall.
Maybe that's bad luck. Maybe that's an indictment of the state of the Hawkeye program.
Or, maybe the coach had it right. Maybe that's football.
The Iowa coach and athletic director discussed the Jan. 2 game in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Tennessee.
FOUR MORE TOUGH-TO-SWALLOW 2014 MOMENTS
A few other key plays and decisions from Iowa's four most-painful losses:
•Iowa State: Kirk Ferentz calling timeout just before Cole Netten misfired on his first attempt at the winning field goal. Netten turns a second chance into a Cyclone win.
•Maryland: Replays indicated Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown lost a fumble at Iowa's 1-yard line. The on-field call of no-fumble stood. Ferentz said he got no explanation. The Terrapins took a 17-14 lead on the next play.
•Wisconsin: Another huge third-down conversion: Jordan Lomax over-running Melvin Gordon on a late third-and-13, leading to a 35-yard completion. "That's on me," Lomax would say afterward. "I was supposed to come down and pretty much make sure he doesn't come out."
•Nebraska: Intended receiver Jake Duzey appeared to be held in the end zone on third down in overtime. There was no flag. That turned out to be Iowa's fitting final offensive play of 2014.
Kirk Ferentz talks about the upcoming TaxSlayer Bowl.
TAXSLAYER BOWL GLANCE
•Matchup: Iowa (7-5) vs. Tennessee (6-6)
•Kickoff: 2:20 p.m. CT on Jan. 2, Jacksonville, Fla.
•The line: Tennessee is favored by 3.5.