Thank God this week is finally wrapping up, which means we’re almost done hearing about the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa State Cyclones playing a game about which nobody outside of their state gives a shit.
The whole Internet has been on fire with El Assico content this week, and it’s certainly been inflamed by Iowa’s historic performance against South Dakota State, but it’s not like it’s unusual for this week to be awash in such drama.
Below is an image from the first ever entry in my Big Ten Infographics* series back in 2016.
I’ll admit that I’ve been part of the problem, but we as a society continue to indulge this behavior and pretend it’s cutesy, good-time Heartland Americana that represents The Best In Us, and it promotes a Wacky College Football Rivalry Game where Anything Can Happen!
You know what can’t happen anymore? Iowa State winning. Their last victory was in 2014 as one of two wins in Paul Rhoads’ swansong season. This was Rhoads’ third win in four years against Iowa, but he left Ames 32-55 overall with no winning seasons save an inaugural campaign of 6-6 with a bowl win.
In his stead is Matt Campbell. Iowa State cast off the yoke of irrelevance and instead got fitted for a collar whose leash Kirk Ferentz holds. Sometimes they lose in dramatic fashion, like the 44-41 OT loss in 2017. Sometimes they beat themselves like the 18-17 loss in 2019. Sometimes it’s 42-3 like in 2016. It’s invariably been a loss though.
You’d never know it judging by the preseason hype Iowa State routinely gets. Campbell has them competing at a substantially higher level than they’ve been at in my lifetime, but every year since they beat Oklahoma the one time they’ve been propped up as a dark horse conference title contender, and every year they’ve failed to deliver. This is fine for a school that’s historically struggled to find bowl games, but every year I’m expected to believe that even bigger things are on the horizon, and every year they lose to Iowa.
As a fan of neither of these teams though, at least Iowa State has had a journey. They’ve been someone. They’ve done different things. They’ve excited people. To see a sad sack program like Iowa State ascend to the level of consistently “Also Receiving Votes” is at least interesting.
Iowa, though? Iowa never changes. We’ve been through this a million times, but that’s the frustrating thing about this series. Iowa State actually COULD be something other than what they’ve always been, except they keep losing to the same Iowa team. Everything fun about Iowa State is extinguished in this rivalry game because Iowa hates fun and wants to make sure nobody has any.
And for all the dunking on Iowa that’s been done this week, it’s not really like they’re any different than they’ve been all these years. What they are is a good football team with a very hard ceiling on what they can achieve because they do not value offense at all. That’s good enough for Kirk Ferentz forever, and it’s been good enough to beat Iowa State. They’ve taken it to an extreme this year, but are they bad?
No, they’re not bad, because it would be interesting if they were actually bad.
Meanwhile, the rest of us need to stop indulging this and pretending like this game matters. You know what this always reminds me of? The Iowa caucuses.
Prior to the 2020 edition, the Iowa caucuses had a prelude where all the candidates went around to farm towns and local diners pretending to be real human beings with their Finger on the Pulse of Middle America. This was very important to the rest of the country, because even though the number of delegates is insignificant to the overall race, it’s the first contest on the docket. This means we all have to pretend that Iowa represents Real Honest Humble Hardworking Blue Collar America, With Good Old Fashioned American Values. Decent Folk. Aspirational, even.
Never mind that Steve King was elected to nine consecutive U.S. Congress terms (defeating Matt Campbell in one of those elections).
In 2020, numerous administrative errors and blunders running the thing meant that the winner of the Democratic caucus in Iowa was unclear for days. This caused folks to examine (a) the “tried-and-true” methods that had been used to conduct this caucus for so long, and (b) why this contest has to matter so much in the first place. Do you remember what a clusterfuck that was? It took a pretty big one to finally wake people up to the fact that the Iowa caucus is stupid and its political relevance has been blown wildly out of proportion by our news media.
Let’s hope a similar thing happens with El Assico.
Anyway, with that prediction out of the way, would you care to hear some more about Week 2? Virginia at Illinois might very well be the most watchable game the Big Ten is involved in this week! Who’s most likely to struggle against their tomato can opponent?
*Note: I promise that series isn’t permadead, but I won’t commit to a specific schedule for something that I don’t think can be good every time I do it