By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Finally, game week is here.
And is just me, or does it seem like it took forever to reach this point?
This will be my 30th season opener covering Iowa football, a journey that started with Iowa losing to North Carolina State 24-14 in the 1992 Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
My second season opener was Iowa’s 26-25 victory over Tulsa in 1993, which I remember being highly entertaining and dramatic, but also a sign that Iowa might be average, as it proved to be with a 6-6 record.
My third season opener was a 52-21 victory over Central Michigan, a game that has completely slipped my memory, as have many season openers, because frankly, most of them aren’t worth remembering.
Many of Iowa’s season openers over the last three decades have been boring and predictable, and mostly a showcase, and a big paycheck, for an overmatched opponent.
But that hardly is the case this season with 18th-ranked Iowa preparing to face No. 17 Indiana in the 2021 season opener on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Indiana is ranked in the preseason poll for the first time since 1968.
It’s hard to think of an Iowa season opener under Kirk Ferentz that has been more anticipated than the one coming up on Saturday.
The Hoosiers finished 6-2 last season, and many of the players that have led the resurgence under head coach Tom Allen are back this season, and ready to have significant roles in what could be a special season.
Allen has endeared himself to Indiana’s basketball-crazy fan base with his passion, his love for his players, and last but certainly not least, with his winning.
Indiana always seems to have good offensive players, and scores lots of points, but has struggled on defense.
Allen is changing that, or so it seems.
Indiana still can score a lot of points, but its defense is now doing its part.
Indiana, much like Iowa State, now has a target on its back that comes with being nationally ranked.
The Hoosiers are usually the hunter in football, but this season will be different, at least early on.
Should Indiana struggle out of the gate, then expectations would fade and fans would start preparing for basketball in October under a new head coach.
“I love the way that it creates a sense of urgency with your team,” Allen said of facing a team of Iowa’s caliber in the season opener. “The start of the season always creates excitement. There’s always that level, no matter who you play.
“But when it’s a conference opponent, and when it’s team of their caliber, coach Ferentz does a tremendous job there, the consistency, the toughness they have had for so many years, and to go and play in that venue to start the season is going to be very challenging.”
Iowa is preparing to face what is arguably the toughest two games out of the gate for the Hawkeyes since the 1992 season when they faced North Carolina State and Miami (Fla.).
Iowa lost both games and would go on to finish 5-7 in 1992 after having finished 10-1-1 in 1991.
Turn the calendar back to this season and Iowa is a 2-0 start from being a top-five team, but also a 0-2 start from being dismissed as a playoff contender.
Iowa still could win the Big Ten West despite a 0-2 start because Iowa State is a nonconference opponent, and because Indiana is in the Big Ten East Division.
But it’s hard to see a two-loss Iowa team, even with a Big Ten title, making the playoff.
So these first two games are huge from a big-picture standpoint.
A lot has happened since Iowa last hosted a season opener on August 31, 2019, a 38-14 victory over Miami (Ohio).
The Hawkeyes would go on to win 10 games that season, which was capped by a 49-24 victory over the University of Southern California in the 2019 Holiday Bowl in late December in San Diego.
But then about three months later, life for everyone changed dramatically with the outbreak of the Covid-19 global pandemic.
College sports were shutdown, along with almost everything else, and then a tough situation became worse for Iowa football when multiple former Iowa black players accused the program of racial disparities in the summer of 2020.
Chris Doyle lost his job as Iowa’s long-time strength and conditioning coach as part of the fallout, and those in the program have been working since last summer to change the culture and the image of Iowa football.
Critics and doubters were ready to pounce when Iowa started 0-2 last season, but the team rallied for six straight wins to finish 6-2.
It was one of Kirk Ferentz’s best coaching jobs, how he held the team together, on and off the field, during difficult times.
And now with many of the players back from last season, Iowa enters the 2021 season nationally ranked and facing a schedule in which it could be favored to win all but two games on paper.
Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, or a West Division title since 2015.
Needless to say, that’s a long time in both cases for a program that takes great pride in its football success.
Saturday’s season opener, at least on paper, has the makings of a classic, one that could be etched in our minds forever.
I still remember the 2000 season opener at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City for two reasons, the first being that it felt hotter than the surface of Venus on that late August day, and the second being the debut of Bob Sanders.
The game itself was dud as a veteran Kansas State squad won 27-7 against a young and developing Iowa team.
This coming Saturday’s game, on the other hand, will match two teams with high expectations, but with little margin for error in their quest to be special.
Fans will be back at Kinnick Stadium for the first time since 2019, and that should give Iowa a competitive advantage.
Iowa’s 2020 season opener was on the road at Purdue, a game in which Iowa lost 24-20 in a mostly empty stadium, and with no in-person interviews afterwards.
It was also Iowa’s first season opener that I didn’t cover in person. And that was weird.
Saturday’s season opener almost seems like a reward for having persevered through some tough and surreal times.
The virus still is a threat, but hopefully, the vaccines will help keep the 2021 college football season from being interrupted or shortened because this season could be a lot of fun, starting with the season opener.