Leistikow: Hawkeyes' final football ranking should serve as both validation, motivation

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa’s resting place in the final college football polls released Tuesday simultaneously served as a slap on the back and a slap to the face.

Officially, the 9-4 Hawkeyes accomplished their late-season goal to finish as a ranked team. A panel of 61 media voters placed them 25th in the final Associated Press Top 25. Only 19 of 65 Power Five teams (29 percent), including five of 14 from the Big Ten Conference, can carry lasting AP top-25 distinction for the 2018 season.

Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette celebrates the second of three Hawkeye touchdowns during a 27-22 win against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes jumped into the final AP Top 25 with that result.

This is only the seventh of 20 Kirk Ferentz teams to reach the final top 25, joining some of program’s iconic collections of talent. The 2002 Hawkeyes got it started with a final ranking of No. 8, followed by 2003 (No. 8), 2004 (No. 8), 2008 (No. 20), 2009 (No. 7), 2015 (No. 9) and now 2018.

One of the program’s outgoing seniors, Parker Hesse, told me Tuesday that being in that select company matters, and so does the ranking.

“Seeing that number next to a team’s name,” he said, “does carry weight.”

Worth a slap on the back, for sure.

Now, for the slap in the face.

Iowa finished unranked, by one spot, in the final Amway Coaches’ Poll. What really makes the result hard to comprehend is that Mississippi State — which had one fewer win at 8-5 and was the team Iowa defeated 27-22 in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl — was the team that ended up No. 25. According to poll compilers at USA TODAY, Iowa held the 25th spot until the 64th and final ballot came in.

Yeah, polls are subjective. Each of the coaches’ ballots (which are not made public) likely had a different rationale for putting one team ahead of another. And your guess is as good as mine at how much time Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney spent poring over spots 21 through 25.

If I were a coaches' poll voter, though, I sure as heck couldn’t justify putting a 12-2 Fresno State team that lost to Minnesota (which Iowa manhandled in Minneapolis) eight spots ahead of the Hawkeyes. And I’m still searching for a quality win on the résumé of No. 21 Utah State (unless beating 8-6 Hawaii counts).

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, beat eight-win programs out of the Big 12 Conference and Southeastern Conference. Their four losses came against bowl-qualifying Big Ten teams and by an average of 5.75 points. Their body of work was deemed worthy of a final No. 10 spot in Jeff Sagarin’s widely respected computer ratings, a metric that takes schedule strength into account.

I would hope that most objective voting coaches who take the time to evaluate the collective final top 25 would realize that Mississippi State being ahead of Iowa is a stain to their poll’s dwindling credibility.

And if you’re a returning Hawkeye football coach or player, the snub should serve as a motivation that being accurately remembered comes down to championships, not rankings.

As is the norm on the day following college football’s national championship game, the “way-too-early” rankings for the following season are already out.

And already, Iowa’s 2019 prospects are being regarded with optimism. A USA TODAY ranking from Paul Myerberg put the Hawkeyes at No. 16. A post from The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel also put them at No. 16.

That’d certainly be a lofty starting point for an Iowa team that is likely to lose four underclassmen — arguably its four best players in 2018 — to the NFL Draft. Already declared gone are tight end Noah Fant, defensive back Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson. It seems imminent that Mackey Award winner T.J. Hockenson will join them soon, although he hadn’t made it official as of Tuesday afternoon.

That’s some serious star power to replace. I’ll be honest: No. 16 seems too high, even with quarterback Nate Stanley returning.

But, as Hesse pointed out, having that final number next to your name holds meaning.

It says your program is on the right track.

It tells recruits as the next signing day (Feb. 7) approaches that good football is played in Iowa City.

But, just like the polls, that’s all talk.

The best way to be remembered in 2019 is, for starters, winning the Big Ten's West Division for the first time since 2015.

Then take your best shot at the conference title game in Indianapolis.

That means taking steps now to win the close games later.

Don’t leave your season’s final verdict to a group of voters with different agendas.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.