Yes, this is biggest game in Iowa football history

Chad Leistikow

INDIANAPOLIS — Saturday's Big Ten Conference championship is the biggest game in Iowa football history.


This isn't hyperbole. And if the 12-0 Hawkeyes beat 11-1 Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium, the next one will then become the biggest game in Iowa football history.

That's where things stand in early December as this improbable Hawkeye season of 2015 continues. Everything is on the table. Everything.

"I have no idea (if it is)," said senior tight end Henry Krieger Coble, a lifelong Hawkeye fan from Mount Pleasant. "I just know that we have a huge opportunity here to make history.

"We say every game is the biggest game in Iowa history. The next game you have a chance to do something, and you've just got to take advantage of it."

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What separates the magnitude of Saturday's game from any of the previous 1,205 games in school history is that it's the postseason and everything is in Iowa's control.

If the goal is a national championship (and why wouldn't it be?), then this is bigger than any bowl game.

It could be argued that the 1986 Rose Bowl was bigger than this — but at No. 4 in the national polls, 10-1 Iowa would've needed an enormous amount of fortune to have a shot in the Associated Press or coaches' polls. As it turned out, Iowa lost to UCLA, anyway — but even with a big win, a No. 2 national ranking was probably the ceiling.

The biggest regular season game in Iowa history could be debated. Was it in 1960, when No. 1 Iowa lost to No. 3 and eventual national champ Minnesota when both teams were 6-0 in a nine-game regular season? Was it a series of 1985 games, namely against Michigan and Ohio State, after the Chuck Long-led Hawkeyes rose to No. 1 in the rankings?

But this is a game that wasn't on the original schedule. This is the first time since 1960 that Iowa is in a position to win a national championship with wins in its next three games. And, face it: A national championship in 2015 means a lot more than it did in 1960.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't want his players getting in their heads that this game is any bigger than 60 minutes of blocking, tackling and execution. That one-play-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time approach has led Iowa to its first 12-0 start in school history (surpassing the 2009 Hawkeyes' opening of 9-0).

"Even before the game starts, I think it's real important, our mindset going over there," Ferentz said, "because it's going to be different. It's a little bit like a bowl game in a lot of ways. You can't be in awe of the circumstances."

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The 1958 Hawkeyes that went 8-1-1 were voted No. 1 in the final poll by the Football Writers Association of America, but LSU was voted that year's national champion by the more recognized wire-service polls. Back then, college football's best team was a complete judgment call, especially before 1968 when the Associated Press or UPI didn't include bowl games in their final polls.

But in the BCS/playoff era, which began with the 1998 season, there clearly has never been this much at stake for Iowa. America knows that whoever wins Saturday is guaranteed a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff.

But even if you take away the winning-a-trophy part of this, Saturday is a chance for Iowa to make the Big Ten title game a 3½-hour TV commercial for its "developmental" label to all the potential prospects out there. A win Saturday sends the message to them that you can compete for championships in Iowa City, which by the way has a brand new $55 million football performance center.

A loss? Well, the perception shifts to this being a nice magical season, but nothing seismic.

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A win Saturday makes Iowa one of seven (if Alabama beats Florida) or eight programs to reach the two-year-old College Football Playoff. It also makes the head coaching job here a premier position whenever Ferentz, 60, decides to ride permanently into the sunset.

On top of all that, the money involved after this stage is staggering. ESPN pays about $470 million annually just to broadcast the "New Year's Six" bowl games plus the national championship. A spot in the playoff is worth $6 million for that team's conference. Exposure-wise, it could be even more valuable. Last year's Ohio State-Oregon title game drew 33.6 million television viewers.

The eyeballs, the stakes, the prestige — it's something that these Hawkeyes probably shouldn't think about.

"Our (season-opening) Illinois State game was a really big game for us," Ferentz said. "That was an important game, so we've kind of looked at each one the same way. And hopefully we can do that on Saturday."


Who: Iowa (12-0) vs. Michigan State (11-1)

When, where: 7:17 p.m., Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

TV: Fox (Announcers: Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt)

The line: Michigan State is favored by 3.5