INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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Earlier this month, a self-described lifetime Iowa football fan approached me in a Cedar Rapids supermarket and told me he was nervous.
That would normally make me nervous, too. Really nervous. But he seemed like a rational person, and quickly explained “Good things don’t happen when we’re picked to do well.”
The Hawkeyes are picked to do well, all right. They’re the consensus choice to win the Big Ten West, which is a lot more than you would have said at this time last year unless you were OK with being called kooky.
If you’re Iowa, is there nowhere to go but down? What in the world do you do for an encore?
You’re coming off your program’s first unbeaten regular season since 1922. What, you’re going 12-0 again and then also winning the Big Ten title game this time around, maybe even grabbing a College Football Playoff victory or two while you’re at it?
That’s kind of a tall order.
There’s a reason Iowa and Clemson were the only regular-season unbeatens in all of FBS last year. There’s a reason Iowa hadn’t had an unbeaten regular season since Warren G. Harding was president. It defies the odds. It really defies the odds.
So forget considering a 12-0 rerun unless, say, the Hawkeyes have won at Illinois on Nov. 19 to take an 11-0 mark into their game against Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving.
Let’s segue from fantasy to reality. What would make for a genuinely satisfying season? The answer seems simple:
Play like a team worthy of its No. 15 preseason ranking from this Saturday all the way through Black Friday. Be competitive every week. Force your opponent to play great football to defeat you.
That, believe it or not, is more challenging than what the Hawkeyes accomplished last season. This Iowa team could be better than last year’s and not get the results to verify that.
Forget going 12-0 again. That’s freaky, fairy tale stuff. Iowa could go 10-2 or even 9-3 this season and be as imposing or more than it was a year ago.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard, second-team All-Big Ten last year, could be better this year. Perhaps he should be. He actually may be underrated in many circles. If he’s healthier than he was for over two-thirds of last season, he might be a truly dominant player.
Quarterbacks like Beathard seldom come Iowa’s way. With him behind center, there is no reason to think Iowa shouldn’t be taken seriously. Then there’s a defense that could be the Hawkeyes’ best since 2008.
There’s cornerback Desmond King, and when’s the last time Iowa returned a first-team All-American? Yet, who’s to say linebacker Josey Jewell or defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson won’t be the most-important player of this year’s unit?
Yet, with stellar players at so many positions, that pointed ball can take weird bounces. Maybe this year that last-second, 57-yard field goal try nicks the crossbar and bounces backward. Many say Iowa’s schedule is again soft, but you won’t win intelligence contests in football circles for circling a home game with Michigan and a road date with Penn State as automatic wins, and the Hawkeyes played neither a year ago.
You can’t know who will and won’t get injured. Maybe Beathard gets hurt again during the season and again isn’t fully the player he would have been. Don’t call me a jinx. It’s football. Ask Drew Ott.
We, being everyone in sports media who cared enough to chime in with thoughts on which football team will win the Big Ten West this season, have spoken. And we have nearly been unanimous in saying our choice is Iowa.
Hawkeye fans, however, are no less superstitious than supporters of any other team’s. They cringe when they see hosannas thrown at the Hawkeyes like rice at a wedding. Nothing comes easily for Iowa, they know.
You don’t get 57-yard game-winning field goals very often. You don’t go 5-0 in games decided by one score (eight points or less) very often. Winning enough to capture a division title is a difficult chore that requires getting almost everything right.
However, sometimes you simply are the best team in your division. Last year, Iowa was simply the best in the Big Ten West, period. It will take some proving by another team to convince us that won’t be the case again in 2016.