Hawkeye fans, with whom I’ve spent many a dangerous hour in some of the darker corners of Eastern Iowa, have restored my faith in them as something other than rogues and rascals.
This week via Twitter, I asked them which of the following football teams they’d rather have Iowa face in Week 9 of this college football season: Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State, Rutgers.
They overwhelmingly chose Ohio State. That opportunity probably won’t present itself, but that’s irrelevant. They made the right call.
You live for the challenge, to do something difficult knowing it comes with a risk of failure and perhaps even embarrassment. If you wanted an easier go of it, you’d move to the NFC East and beat up on the four sad sacks there.
The quest is for championships, yes, but there’s a second goal that’s just as important. That’s satisfaction. You can’t attain it without beating someone believed to be above your weight class.
How many teams from the five major football conferences will exit this season with true satisfaction? Very few, I’d say. If you’re Alabama or Clemson or Ohio State and don’t win the national title, you don’t. If you’re one of the high-ranked SEC teams that don’t reach that league’s title game? There’s a hollow spot in those souls.
Wisconsin’s start-and-stop season can’t be fun. If Oklahoma wins the Big 12 without a College Football Playoff berth, it’s half a loaf. What if Notre Dame goes unbeaten until its ACC title-game rematch with Clemson, then gets smashed?
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Then there are the programs expected to be superpowers, your Texas, your Michigan, your Penn State, your Florida State, your LSU. Oh, the emptiness in those places these days.
In our state, both teams have found different degrees of fulfillment, and both have the chances to add to them and have the opportunity to escape 2020 with something resembling joy.
Iowa State, of course, has done so by going where no Cyclones team has gone before. That’s to the top of the Big 12 standings. A victory over West Virginia Saturday gives ISU the outright regular-season conference title in the same week it zoomed to ninth in the CFP rankings.
That in itself is enough to call it a great year. You can lose to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship, you can lose a bowl game to somebody of merit. But you’ve got that 8-1 in the conference, that first-place finish you got by facing every team in the league.
It’s the only Power Five league in which everyone faces everyone else, so ending on top of the standings means more.
And, of course, Iowa State would give itself another chance to add to its resume if it faced Oklahoma again. Yes, the Sooners are better than when they lost in Ames several weeks ago. So are the Cyclones.
But with a win over West Virginia, this season is an unqualified success for Iowa State no matter how the rest of the story is written.
Iowa can turn an 0-2 start into an 8-2 finish. It’s halfway there. Winning at Illinois Saturday is expected, but I’d wager a lot of magic beans it won’t be nearly as easy as the Hawkeyes’ last few trips there.
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Then, you have Wisconsin at home. Winning that would give enormous pleasure to a team and fan base that has endured four straight losses to the Badgers. It would easily be the most-enjoyable result of the season.
Next, you have the Dec. 19 opponent. Let’s say it’s Indiana. Good team. Ranked team. It would be a meaningful win.
Then, there’s some cockamamie bowl game against heaven-knows-who. Win that, you close with eight straight W’s and feel pretty good about yourself all through the offseason.
So while so many programs are about to enter winters of discontent — Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan and Penn State leap to mind — Iowa State and Iowa can have offseason bliss if they continue on the paths they’ve been traveling lately.
Of course, if the bowls and ESPN conspire to do the right thing and have the Cyclones and Hawkeyes meet in the postseason, one of the two will bow out with the blues.
Perhaps they should worry about disposing of West Virginia and Illinois first.