Leistikow: Why Cy-Hawk game is an enormous opportunity for Iowa Hawkeyes, Kirk Ferentz

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz is 66 years old and in his 23rd season as Iowa’s football coach. He’s experienced a lot of unique things at the helm of the Hawkeyes in that time, including 169 wins, five national top-10 finishes, two Big Ten Conference championships, two Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl.

His 2002 team won by 25 points in the Big House. His 2004 team finished its season with a miracle in Nick Saban’s final game as LSU coach. His 2015 team stunned the nation with a 12-0 regular season and came within one yard, literally, of the College Football Playoff.

But what is happening Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium is among the most unique checkpoints of Ferentz's coaching career. For just the second time, he’ll be leading a top-10 team in a regular-season game against a top-10 opponent. (Iowa is No. 12 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll and No. 10 by the Associated Press; Iowa State is No. 10 by the coaches, No. 9 by AP.)

The only other such occasion under Ferentz: A 19-10 loss as the nation’s No. 9 team at No. 8 Ohio State in 2003.

Iowa State has just one such top-10 AP matchup in its football history, period — in 2002, when the No. 9 Cyclones were whipped at No. 2 Oklahoma, 49-3.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has won five straight against Iowa State, but four of those came down to the fourth-quarter (or overtime) wire.

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Saturday marks a chance for Iowa or Iowa State to propel itself into the national conversation for weeks to come, not just one week. One team will be on the cusp of the top five, just two Saturdays into its 2021 season. Saturday's loser might fall to No. 15 or so, but it'll be a more arduous climb back to the top 10 (or 12) and the dream of a College Football Playoff bid will be more far-fetched.

Ferentz, of course, dismissed early-season rankings in an answer on the topic Tuesday. And he’s right, to an extent. Just because Iowa State has a 9/10 next to its name and Iowa has a 10/12 doesn’t mean either is actually among the 10 best teams in college football. How could we really know after one Saturday?

“I mean, rankings mean a lot more in October and November. They really mean something in January,” Ferentz said.

But, he correctly added, “Goal-wise, we would love to get up into that tier and be there for a while.”

For the Cyclones, a win Saturday would have everyone forgetting their tense Week 1 win against UNI. They'd be 2-0 with friendly matchups against UNLV, Baylor and Kansas between now and mid-October. You wouldn't have to squint to see Iowa State at 5-0 and a top-five team going into an Oct. 16 matchup at nemesis Kansas State.

For the Hawkeyes, a win Saturday would mean even more. They’ve already dispatched a preseason top-20 team in Indiana, one that was overwhelmed in a 34-6 defeat at Kinnick Stadium last Saturday. Add a road win against a top-10 opponent that has earned a ton of national respect under Matt Campbell (including with last season’s Fiesta Bowl win against Oregon), and the Hawkeyes would be positioned in the spotlight for a while, already with résumé-building wins.

More:Hawk Central: The big Iowa vs. Iowa State preview episode

After this week, Iowa comes home to face Kent State (which lost to Texas A&M, 41-10, despite forcing five turnovers) followed by Colorado State (which was trounced by FCS program South Dakota State, 42-23). A win against Iowa State would pave the way for the Hawkeyes to carry a 4-0 record into an October dance card that would open with two spotlight games — on a Friday night at Maryland, then at home against possibly another top-10 foe in Penn State.

“We’re excited to see what we can do against them,” Iowa right tackle Nick DeJong said of the Cyclones. "Obviously, they’re really good. It’ll kind of let us know where we’re at.”

Iowa’s ranking in the AP poll is its highest since finishing the 2015 season at No. 9; its coaches’ ranking is the highest since being No. 11 in 2016 … before a home loss to FCS North Dakota State. That’s a sobering reminder that it’s hard to get into (or near) the top 10 and often harder to stay there.

This is an opportunity to be savored … and capitalized upon.

It's interesting that even though Iowa has won five straight against Iowa State, it's the Hawkeyes that have a bigger opportunity. They are 4½-point underdogs Saturday (3:30 p.m. CT on ABC). Without an Ohio State looming on the schedule, this game offers a precious chance at a signature win that could be discussed for months to come in the playoff context.

Iowa has a confident team, one that relies on preparation and gameday execution. It’s won seven games in a row, all against Big Ten competition, dating to last season.

“It’ll be exciting going over there and taking the hostility out of the crowd and their excitement out of their fans,” Iowa running back Tyler Goodson said, “and just going over there and getting a win."

With ESPN's College GameDay on the scene Saturday, the national football spotlight is focused on Ames.

A Hawkeye win, and the bright lights will shift toward Iowa City.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.