On October 23, 2010, 6-1 Wisconsin came into Kinnick Stadium to meet the 5-1 Iowa Hawkeyes. With 6:25 left, Wisconsin faced 4th-and-4 on its own 26 yard-line, and then-head coach Bret Bielema trotted the punt team on the field. I was shocked that Bielema wasn't going for it. I don't remember if "fake punt" crossed my mind, but bringing out the punt team, in that situation, seemed the obvious wrong thing to do. More than that, for those who knew Bielema, it didn't seem like something he'd do. The fake and the rest of the story are history.
Wisconsin won that game 31-30, and since then, the two programs have been on different courses. Heading into the game, Iowa had been a bright star in the national football universe. It had won the Orange Bowl the previous season. It had two surefire first-round draft picks in its starting lineup. Kirk Ferentz was still at the top of so many NFL coaching hire lists. Wisconsin, under Barry Alvarez and then Bret Bielema, had been good, but hadn't been to a BCS game since the 2000 Rose Bowl.
Since that game, Wisconsin has been to three Rose Bowls. It has won two Big Ten championships plus one co-championship. It has gone 46-18, finishing ranked in all but 2012. It has not lost a single trophy game.
And Iowa? Mediocre-city. Iowa has not sniffed the rankings since the team fizzled out at the end of 2010, losing to a horrible 3-9 Minnesota team. It has gone 33-28, never coming close to a Big Ten championship or BCS bowl. It has lost to two MAC teams. It has gone 5-11 in trophy games. It even failed to go bowling in 2012.
On their On Iowa podcast, Cedar Rapids Gazette columnists Marc Morehouse and Scott Dochterman are fond of comparing the non-Ohio State/Michigan element of the Big Ten to an iceberg, with each team representing a polar bear that is fighting for a place on that iceberg. The truth of this metaphor lies in the recruiting. States like Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin are not Florida, Texas, or even Ohio. As this 2013 Athlon Sports article shows, those states don't have enough talent to sustain much more than two programs. Consequently, the iceberg metaphor. Only two bears at a time; everyone else go play with Indiana and Purdue.
Since that fateful 2010 autumn night, Wisconsin and Michigan State have handily knocked Iowa, and every other second-tier Big Ten team, off of their iceberg. They have been the second-tier teams that have competed, and in some cases, beaten, the big boys. Meanwhile, Iowa has been engaged in third-tier pillow fights with Minnesota and Northwestern, or worse, Indiana and Purdue.
Lately, the talk has been that things in Iowa City have turned around. Iowa is back, there is a new Kirk Ferentz, this team is different. And Iowa fans, after years of disappointment (and I would argue boredom), are gun-shy. They don't want to believe it like they've believed it in the past.
However, this much is unarguable: Iowa is 4-0 for the first time since 2009. The Iowa that has taken the field these past four weeks are not world beaters, but there is a different vibe that surrounds this team. It is not a vibe anybody who doesn't follow the team closely would notice, but it is there. Most importantly, the overall team dynamic—the man at the top, Kirk Ferentz—still can't manage a game clock, but he is noticeably more aggressive, and he has adopted modern offensive and special teams schemes that he has resisted for years.
I am not here to argue that a win over No. 18-ranked Wisconsin this weekend means that Iowa is definitively back. But I will argue that a win over Wisconsin would put Iowa back in the Top 25. It would mean that Iowa is, at least in the immediate picture, nationally relevant for the first time in five years. It means Wisconsin and Michigan State have to fend off a new polar bear on the iceberg. It means, given Iowa's schedule, there is a real chance for a special year in 2015.
More than any of that, it means that Iowa football is back in the respect that it is fun to watch again. That Hawkeyes fans can stop being gun-shy and start to trust their head coach and believe in their team's potential. And as an Iowa fan, after three years of watching a fullback, to his credit, trying to run an outside zone, that is more than enough for me.