By Scott Levine
With college football coming to a close, and basketball season just starting to heat up, it seems fans of the two major Iowa teams are watching a parallel universe develop in the respective conferences.
In football, it appeared the Hawkeyes could field a bad team and still get to six wins against the weak competition in the Big 10, while the Cyclones faced a daunting task of facing a squad with a winning record each week in the Big 12.
We all know what happened from there.
Now, in basketball, it seems the roles are reversed, with the Big 10 fielding a loaded crop of teams, while the Big 12 may sneak in four or five teams into the Big Dance. The Hawkeyes, like Iowa State in football, are better than their counterparts, but the day-in, day-out grind of going against teams in the top 25 may keep them from getting to the top of the Big 10.
Just look at the effect that weekly punishment had on Iowa State’s football team. At the beginning of the year, Iowa State manhandled Tulsa up front, but by the bowl game, Iowa State’s front seven couldn’t keep up, and the Golden Hurricanes pounded the Cyclones (albeit without an All Big 12 linebacker).
As the Cyclones’ season progressed, injuries, unreliable quarterback play and a difficult schedule turned another year of hope into a sub-.500 record. A tough schedule and the loss of many key defensive contributors could make it difficult again for Iowa State to make that jump into the eight or nine-win range.
But as much as I lament about the Cyclones’ late-year losses, it doesn’t compare to what’s going on in Iowa City. If Iowa State beats Tulsa to begin next year, the Cyclones will likely be about a touchdown favorite going into the annual Cy-Hawk game. Not even when Iowa was down in the late 1990s and early 2000s, did Iowa State seem that much better on paper.
On the field, Iowa State won the series for five consecutive years, but leading up to the big game, pundits still favored the Hawkeyes much of the time.
Times are different now. Iowa State is getting better and at least in last year’s win, the Cyclones were more physical up front, something that never happens when Iowa plays Iowa State. And although Iowa reached 4-2 at one point of the season, did anyone reasonably expect the Hawks to make a bowl run? The Big 10 (which lost again on New Year’s Day, but competed better than usual) was ranked toward the bottom of BCS conferences, and Iowa made those teams look invincible.
Something has to change for next year. A new quarterback is obvious, but the lack of a different quarterback this past year was worrisome. Also, the Hawks will need to get back to imposing their will on opponents, especially since their offense will be a work in progress. Kirk Ferentz has turned things around before, but it may take a little while longer this time.
Fran McCaffery didn’t take long to turn things in the right direction for Iowa on the basketball court. In his third year, McCaffery guided the Hawks to its best non-conference record since 2004-05, and wins over Northern Iowa and Iowa State. A narrow loss to Indiana is promising, but the Hawks will need to beat some highly ranked teams at home in order to make the NCAA tournament.
The Big 10 in basketball is much better than their counterparts in football (which historically hasn’t been the case) making it difficult for teams like Iowa, which might have a more gaudy record in conferences like the Big 12, to make the tournament. Iowa State, though, hasn’t looked as good as many expected so far, but with a transfer-laden team still gelling, an easier schedule may pay dividends when conference play starts in less than a week.
Luckily for fans of basketball in the state of Iowa, both teams should make a push for the tournament, making the cold, winter days go by a little faster in preparation for spring.
Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald.