I'm willing to admit that from an outsider's perspective, there isn't much special about this Iowa team. Those who haven't watched very many Iowa games over the last 5 or 6 years would probably expect a 4-0 start to the season based on the schedule alone. Iowa opened against FCS foe Illinois State-- bowl-caliber schools like Iowa shouldn't lose to FCS schools (something Iowa State has done 3 times since 2007). Week 2 featured a contest with Big 12 bottom-feeder and perpetual dumpster fire Iowa State (a program so miserable they've lost to FCS teams 3 times since the 2007 season, if you can believe it). The toughest non-conference matchup came week 3 in the form of a mid-range ACC team with a first year coach (Pitt), followed in week 4 by the team that will probably finish dead-last in Conference USA (North Texas). A 3-1 start would be a disappointment, and a 2-2 would be considered a complete disaster heading into conference play.
And yet, fans in Iowa City are shocked. How many times this summer did we hear about Iowa possibly notching its first ever FCS loss against an elite Redbirds team? Or about Dan McCarney playing spoiler against his alma mater yet again, this time wearing green instead of red and gold? Who was 100% confident that the Hawkeyes were going to actually take care of business against Iowa State for once, or that they were going to beat Pat Narduzzi, one of the greatest defensive minds in college football? Anyone who picked the Hawkeyes to win one of these games surely foresaw more of the ugly, grinding victories we've grown accustomed to over the last 5 seasons. One more 7-6 season was on the horizon, and Kirk Ferentz's stubbornness and resistance to change was the catalyst.
But then something happened in week 1: Iowa played well. Really well. They dominated defensively, and looked more fluid on offense than they ever have since bringing in Greg Davis. The dreaded horizontal passes were used sparingly and to great effect. The running game was actually tailored around the strengths and weaknesses of whoever was carrying the ball. For the first time in years Iowa had a quarterback with a good deep ball, and as a result the field was actually being stretched vertically. These are basic concepts of modern football, but they have eluded the Hawkeyes for some time. Now in the season opener everything was coming together and Iowa comfortably took command of a game for all sixty minutes, something that had grown scarce even before Greg Davis came to Iowa City.
Then Iowa won a close game against Iowa State. Then another one against Pitt. Then finally North Texas came to Iowa City and the Hawkeyes put 62 points on the scoreboard. Iowa's defense is basically the same, but the personell have gotten better, and it shows. All the fundamental changes are on the offense. Ferentz has shown more trust in CJ Beathard than he ever did with Jake Rudock, or for that matter James Vandenberg, and as a result the receivers have been able to make plays downfield instead of 2 yards short of the first down. Instead of running outside zone with a fullback 30 times a game, LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri are being worked as a one-two punch in plays and formations that show off their individual strengths. Starters have been given special teams duty in order to shore up blocking and create bigger returns, an area where Ferentz has traditionally favored the NFL style of using all backups. The Hawkeyes are finally, and I'm ashamed that this is even a talking point, running and passing out of the same formations. Bad teams attempt all these things and fail at execution. Kirk Ferentz has spent the last 5 years pretending that these fundamental aspects of football were beneath him, and therefore not even attempting them. No matter how you break it down, this football team is better than any Iowa team since the 2010 season. But does this mean Iowa is going to be good? As in, the 11-2 Orange Bowl champions from 2009 good?
I don't blame anyone for not taking this team seriously yet. Apart from scoring 62 points against North Texas, every change to this team has been subtle. Anyone who hasn't been paying attention for the last 4 seasons sees the same old vanilla Hawkeyes, a team that plays each game like a coin toss. The only difference between this season and the last is that we had heads come up 4 times in a row. Or maybe Iowa has somewhat improved, but 7-6 and winning by 20 points is no different than 7-6 and winning by 3 points. The point is, Iowa won 4 games it should have won, 3 of them by a comfortable margin, and nobody outside of Iowa City recognizes this as a major shift. But to fans, to those of us paying attention all these years, something is different. We actually have a reason to be hopeful. Some fans are already naming this team a reincarnation of the 2009 squad (and I will admit there are several parallels). Others are more like scared puppies at the pound, cautiously refraining from feeling too much joy.
Now if I may remove my "rational fan" hat for a moment while I slip back into my "raving mad Iowa homer/crazy fan" velour smoking jacket: A win or a loss against Wisconsin will completely validate or destroy Iowa's season, respectively. Let me elaborate. Wisconsin is more or less a known commodity. They inhabit that zone between "good" and "really good". If Iowa goes to Madison and knocks off the Badgers, we will know this team is for real and we can start booking hotel rooms in Indianapolis. A loss, and we'll know that 4-0 was just a product of cupcake scheduling and that this team is the same old turd, only with a fresh coat of paint. We'll have nothing to hang our hat on (except the fact that the Cyclones are nothing and they will always be nothing). Five years from now I'll be "writing" a preseason preview on the Hawkeyes that will either end with "Will Iowa be great like the 2015 team or mediocre like the ones from 2010-2014?
"Will Iowa be great like that 2009 team, or sad and disappointing like EVERY SINGLE SEASON SINCE THEN?"
Listen, I understand that this isn't the most impressive 4-0 record ever achieved, but don't forget that everyone assumed Iowa was going to stumble disappointingly through this nonconference schedule just like they do every year. Maybe we let the bar fall so close to the floor that anything better than "Alderaan-level disaster" is seen as progress, but I don't think that's it. Call it deluded fandom, call it hopeless optimism or call it a symptom of drinking too much pumpkin ale as I sat down to write this... but I'm going all in on this Iowa team now. Mark my words, this season is going to be a special one. The Hawkeyes have returned, baby. That's football. You heard me. I'm taking it back.