IOWA CITY, Iowa - My brain is full of memories from 24 years of covering Iowa Football. Some of them would be clearly recognizable to fans. Others come from behind the scenes, in victory and defeat.
Hearing the locker room celebration after upsetting Penn State in State College during the 2020 season stands out. So does one of the first times coach Kirk Ferentz broke down publicly following a drubbing of Michigan at the Big House two years later. The shocked student-athletes after a heartbreaking loss against Michigan State in the ’15 Big Ten Championship game is engrained.
There are so many more. New ones will enter the consciousness this fall.
A recent recollection popped into my head during Friday’s team media day here on campus. It took place two years ago in Madison. Wisconsin won, essentially eliminating the Hawkeyes from Big Ten West title contention. They were crushed.
That memory is important when analyzing ’21 expectations for Iowa. Would anything less than its first division crown since ’15 be a failure? If that’s too strong of a stance, how disappointing would another season without a championship be?
In my mind, it becomes a bigger letdown with each passing year and missed opportunity. That crushing look clearly present on their faces two seasons ago in Camp Randall Stadium is multiplied by two years now.
When I asked senior cornerback Matt Hankins about expectations on Friday, he said fans can expect he and his teammates to play hard every play. The Texan wasn't going to think about winning the West in the middle of August.
"One game at a time," he said. "You keep your head where your feet are, on the ground, and go to work. You get caught looking ahead, and then you get in trouble."
That should be the Hawkeyes' approach, focusing on each step of the journey. But we don't need to do that. We're discussing what constitutes a successful season in the end.
We can argue that Iowa was the best team in the West during ’20 after it won its final six games in convincing fashion until we’re out of breath. Northwestern is the program hanging the banner in its facility after upsetting the Hawkeyes in Kinnick Stadium again.
The Wildcats own two of the last three West titles. Wisconsin claims the other three since ’15. Iowa is 2-8 against those programs during that time. For the second year in a row, Iowa begins a campaign without anyone on the roster who has experienced a championship. That’s not the case in Evanston or Madison.
Again, falling short of the top spot doesn’t wipe out all accomplishments in a given season. There are special memories that came after the disappointment in Wisconsin two years ago, including a thrilling win against previously unbeaten Minnesota and a clobbering of mighty USC in the Holiday Bowl.
It’s unlikely that team will be returning to Kinnick for a 10th anniversary celebration of its victory in San Diego, however. That probably will happen for the ’15 squad.
Maybe that’s unfair. It’s also reality and a good sign for the program. Others are envious of realistic championship expectations. Heck, Nebraska is just trying play in a bowl for the first time since ’16.
The Hawkeyes are capable of ending their drought. They return 14 student-athletes who earned some type of all-conference recognition in ’20. That number tops the division.
Veteran quarterback Spencer Petras has detractors like just about all of his predecessors. He could cement his legacy alongside Randy Duncan, Chuck Long, Drew Tate and CJ Beathard as Hawkeye signal callers who directed title teams.
Tyler Linderbaum is considered the best center in the country. He adds to his legend if he’s at the center of a championship.
After winning two Big Ten titles in his first six seasons, Ferentz only has the ’15 West championship during the last 14 campaigns. At 66, there likely aren’t many opportunities for the program’s all-time winningest coach to build on his legacy.
No. 18 Iowa also faces a favorable schedule based on preseason expectations. Only three of its nine Big Ten opponents - Wisconsin (15), Indiana (17) and Penn State (20) - are ranked in the coaches’ poll right now. Early betting odds show the Hawkeyes as underdogs in only one conference contest, Oct. 30 at Wisconsin.
It all adds up to a division title being a reasonable expectation.
The Hawkeyes wouldn’t want it any other way.