Iowa Football

Michigan: Iowa football's biggest game since end of 2015 season

For Hawkeyes to be something big this season, a win Saturday is borderline essential

Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh throws a football before his team’s game at Iowa in Kinnick Stadium on 11.12.96. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh throws a football before his team’s game at Iowa in Kinnick Stadium on 11.12.96. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa’s football team is 7-5 against Michigan under Kirk Ferentz and has won five of the last six meetings. It has been to a Big Ten championship game and Michigan has not. It had a Jim Thorpe Award-winning defensive back from Detroit in Desmond King that Michigan didn’t even recruit.

Michigan had three 10-win seasons over the previous four years, so it’s not in the football gutter. You would take three 10-win seasons every four years without asking for details. But over the last 20 years, Michigan has been a lot more like East Nebraska than North Alabama.

However, it’s still Michigan, still a program that commands national interest. When the school hired Jim Harbaugh as coach after the 2014 season, happy days were there again. Until they weren’t.

When the Wolverines did a belly flop like they did at Wisconsin two weeks ago, or in the Peach Bowl last season against Florida, or against Ohio State (again) last season, America took notice.

The Hawkeyes got dominated at Wisconsin two years ago and it made nary a ripple beyond the Midwest. When Michigan did likewise this year, it was seen nationally as an indictment against Harbaugh. Another one.

Pressure-wise and fun-wise going into Saturday’s Iowa-Michigan game in Ann Arbor, the advantages are Iowa’s. If the Hawkeyes come away with a victory, the national story will be the deep discontent in Michigan, which still has to play Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.

More quietly, Iowa will be 5-0. Until the nation realizes the following Saturday’s game will pit 5-0 Penn State against the 5-0 Hawkeyes, and look! Big game!

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You know what the talk would then be regarding Iowa. Beat Penn State, and you’re firmly in the Top 10 with big possibilities.

There are a lot of boulders to move for Iowa to achieve those possibilities. Getting past Iowa State was the first. Trying to push Michigan out of the way is the second.

Meanwhile, the narrative of the Big Ten West race has changed significantly, and we’re only in the first week of October.

Remember when Nebraska was a preseason favorite to win the West despite a defense that had yet to prove it wasn’t the turnstile it was in 2018?

Remember when people were trying to convince us the West was on the rise, with several teams moving forward? That was before Nebraska was humiliated by Ohio State, before defending West champ Northwestern began this season 1-3, before Purdue lost at Nevada before falling to TCU and Minnesota at home.

Minnesota is 4-0 and could quite conceivably be 8-0 when it hosts Penn State on Nov. 9 since its only road game in that time is against Rutgers. What if the Gophers are 9-0 when they come to Kinnick the following week? That would be delicious.

But until proven otherwise, the West is Wisconsin-Iowa. The Hawkeyes can lose one of their two games against Michigan and Penn State and still be the West’s major-domo if they win at Wisconsin on Nov. 9. The Badgers can lose by 50 points at Ohio State on Oct. 26, but they’re going to Indianapolis in December if they beat Iowa and everybody else.

The Hawkeyes were 21-point underdogs when they beat Michigan in 2016, and 18-point dogs when they smashed Ohio State in 2017. They were unranked both times.

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But Iowa is ranked higher than Michigan this week, and there won’t be a shock factor if the Hawkeyes prevail over the Wolverines. Doing it at Michigan Stadium, however, will be a challenge-and-a-half.

With a victory, things get real big, real fast. With a defeat, your buzz is gone and you return to trying to break the rock and whatnot.

This is Iowa’s most-important game since the end of the 2015 season. Being a national program doesn’t matter a bit Saturday in the Big House. Being the winning one does.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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