Iowa football's season of extremes still can finish among Kirk Ferentz's most noteworthy
IOWA CITY — Considering the unconventional ride this Iowa football season has been — a three-month roller coaster with a swift climb and a massive drop before those on board could finally catch their breath — the Hawkeyes enter this last stretch in familiar territory.
That was evident by Tuesday's discussion topics inside Iowa's indoor practice facility. Splattered among the media's questions about Saturday's matchup versus Illinois were talks of flickering division title hopes, double-digit wins, bowls and more. A season of extremes can still be among coach Kirk Ferentz's most noteworthy.
"We have a chance to be a memorable Iowa football team," cornerback Riley Moss said Tuesday. "There have been some great football teams here at Iowa, and that drives us as well. Especially the in-state kids, too, we'd love to be remembered as one of KF's best teams. That's definitely on our minds."
Reaching elite Iowa status first requires no damaging slip-ups in the final two weeks. The No. 14 Hawkeyes (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten Conference) must extend the program's prolonged dominance over Illinois (4-6, 3-4) Saturday by avoiding their first home loss to the Illini since 1999. A similar expectation exists for Black Friday at Nebraska.
Accomplish that and the Hawkeyes, at worst, enter the final regular-season Saturday with hope they can get the help required for a Big Ten West title. Currently tied atop the division with Wisconsin, Iowa needs a Badgers loss this Saturday versus Nebraska or next week Saturday at Minnesota for its first Indianapolis trip since 2015.
A few players who spoke Tuesday said they've peeked at the division standings this week. Others said they haven't looked at the standings at all this year.
"I know we're tied at the top, and Wisconsin obviously has the tiebreaker over us," right guard Kyler Schott said. "I mean, we obviously need them to lose to somebody. But we've got to win first. That's most important."
Several more responses mirrored the second part of Schott's assessment, honing in on the feeling Hawkeyes would have if they got the needed help but blew a division title by dropping one of these next two games.
"We're controlling what we can control," Moss said, "because if Wisconsin loses and we lose, then it doesn't even matter. We're just focused on ourselves. And if that's able to happen, which hopefully it does, that's good for us."
Following Iowa's midseason freefall from No. 2 in both polls on Oct. 10 to 22nd in the first College Football Playoff rankings on Nov. 2, the Hawkeyes have regained footing with back-to-back victories. The wins aren't arriving in glamorous fashion, but Iowa has seemingly put productive distance between October's end and now.
Thriving in November is a Ferentz-era pillar, as it showcases both growth from past adversity and the focus to finish with authority. It's no coincidence that — COVID year aside — Iowa's last undefeated November clinched its most recent division championship.
"November football," center Tyler Linderbaum said, "you love this kind of weather and this kind of atmosphere."
Back beyond where Linderbaum spoke Tuesday is an entrance from the turf field back into the football building. Blazoned below an image of Iowa's "Swarm" are the words "The road to Indianapolis goes through these doors."
It's clear winning a division title carries a lot of weight when it comes to Iowa's yearly goals. We'll see in the coming weeks if that message bears any truth.
Some will always see this Iowa season for its mighty drop from No. 2 and what unfolded in two painful weeks after several joyous ones. The Purdue and Wisconsin losses will haunt fans if the Hawkeyes are home for championship Saturday.
But the order of events doesn't have to shape this year's final narrative. Just compare to last season, for example. Both the 2020 and 2021 campaigns had six-game winning streaks and back-to-back losses. The 2020 team is unanimously praised for the resiliency Iowa showed. This year's group has a chance to be revered in the same way if the Hawkeyes don't stumble again.
Despite a wild route, Iowa has landed in productive territory.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.