IOWA CITY, Iowa – We are about to witness what some are calling the biggest game in the history of the Iowa football program.
I will assume that most of you reading this will either be inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday in Indianapolis when Iowa faces Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game or glued in front of your television watching it.
To say that the 2015 Iowa football team has caught our imagination with its improbable march to 12-0 would be putting it mildly.
But is Saturday’s game the most important game in the history of the Iowa football program?
Is it bigger than the two Rose Bowl victories under Forest Evashevski in the 1950s?
Is it bigger than the 1986 Rose Bowl, the 2003 Orange Bowl or the 6-0 victory over Yale in 1922 in New Haven, Conn., a game in which Iowa played on the East Coast for the first time.
Is it bigger than the Ironmen’s 7-6 victory over Notre Dame in 1939, a game in which Nile Kinnick scored the game-winning touchdown on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy that season?
No disrespect to those games, but yes, Saturday’s showdown is the biggest, the most important and the most significant game in the history of the Iowa program, however you want to put it.
A victory would give Iowa its first Big Ten title under the new divisional setup and would secure a spot in the four-team playoff. It also would move Iowa to just two victories from winning the national title.
Think about that for a second or two. Let it sink in. The same Iowa program that looked over-matched and dysfunctional against Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl in January is now, less than a year later, having one of the greatest seasons, if not the greatest, in school history.
Iowa is preparing to face Michigan State in what could be considered a playoff quarterfinal. It is a chance for undefeated Iowa to show it’s legitimate to those still holding out.
“I guess this game is definitely going to prove that we can play,” said Iowa senior receiver Tevaun Smith. “Whether or not we win or lose, if we put up a good battle, I feel like we’ll get some recognition from other people knowing that we’re a pretty good football team.”
So in other words, Smith is saying that Saturday’s game is so big and will have such a huge impact that Iowa doesn’t even have to win in his opinion to benefit from it.
Kirk Ferentz has gone from being the man without a plan to Superman. He has proven his critics wrong by leading a third resurgence at Iowa, and has done so at a time when a growing number of fans thought it was beyond his capability.
I wasn’t ready to send Ferentz packing after last season, but I wondered if his best days were behind him.
It turns out they weren’t.
The University of Iowa has had a football team since 1889, but it hasn’t had a 12-0 team until now.
Money is another reason Saturday’s game stands above all the others. Television had an impact 30 years ago, but nothing like it does now. The amount of money being generated from games like Saturday is staggering.
Teams also get way more exposure from winning today because every game they play is televised for recruits to watch.
Win or lose, Saturday’s game should be an effective recruiting pitch thanks to the thousands of Hawkeye fans that will be in attendance.
Now, of course, if Iowa defeats Michigan State, then the first playoff game becomes the most important game in the history of the program. Iowa has ventured into uncharted territory where winning leads to a bigger and more prestigious game.
You could say the same about Michigan State, even with its recent success under head coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons and are making their third appearance in the Big Ten championship game.
But they haven’t been this close to winning a national title or had the path to winning a national title so clearly defined.
I didn’t bother asking Ferentz or any of the Iowa players to rank Saturday’s game because I know exactly what they would’ve said. They would’ve called it the biggest game simply because it’s the next game on the schedule. Ferentz also probably would’ve mentioned that the season opener against Illinois State was a huge game, too, because he already has said that multiple times.
Ferentz never has been a big-picture guy, nor does he like to rank teams or moments or players. He prefers to live in the moment like an old mule with blinders on to borrow a phrase from Ferentz’s former boss, Hayden Fry.
The players on this year’s team are the same way. They seem almost obsessed with living in the moment and with treating each game the same.
“You can’t really prepare for this stage,” said Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard. “Obviously, I’ve never played in a Big Ten championship game, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like exactly. It is a bigger stage, but ultimately, it comes down to just being the next game on the schedule.
“That’s the way you’ve got to take it. There are going to be a lot of distractions out there, especially on game day. But you’ve just got to focus in, and I think we’ve done a good job of maintaining our focus all year long.”
The Iowa players have been fantastic at focusing on the week-to-week journey instead of the destination.
But they also have brothers, sisters, parents and other relatives and friends who probably couldn’t resist talking about Saturday’s game in these days leading up to it.
Saturday’s game will be talked about for years to come, even more so should Iowa prevail. A season that started with modest expectations now has the biggest game in the history of the Iowa program as part of it.