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Chris Dufresne ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Iowa: Contender or Pretender?

September 28, 2006|Chris Dufresne

There comes a time in a program's life when it has to put down that drink and get out on the dance floor.

Iowa, they're playing your song.

We know "aw-shucks" Iowans don't like this kind of pressure, but No. 1 Ohio State is making a Buckeye beeline toward town for one of the most important games in the history of the Hawkeye haystack.

They've even remodeled for the occasion -- a two-year, $88-million restoration of Kinnick Stadium now complete. The coolest part of the demolition, naturally, was when they blew up the press box and put the highlights on the Internet.

The school is calling the face lift "the largest such undertaking ever for Iowa athletics."

Actually, the largest undertaking comes to Kinnick on Saturday.

To be considered among college football big boys, Iowa has to win.

Frankly, this is the moment the program has been churning toward since Kirk Ferentz was hired in 1999.

"Obviously," Ferentz said, "there's a real buzz on campus right now, like you'd expect when the top team in the country comes to town."

Iowa has been a fine program, historically yielding periodic crops of success in the shadow of Big Ten silos Ohio State and Michigan.

Iowa has produced one Heisman Trophy winner, Nile Kinnick, in 1939.

It finished second in the polls in 1958 and went to three Rose Bowls under Coach Hayden Fry.

In 1985, when Ferentz was an Iowa assistant on Fry's staff, No. 1 Iowa beat No. 2 Michigan in Iowa City but didn't finish the job, later losing to Ohio State and then to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

Since its first game in 1892, Iowa has never won a national title.

It is 0-9-1 against top-ranked schools.

It is time to quit being a zero.

Iowa is No. 13 in this week's coaches' poll and No. 14 in the Harris Interactive index, the two rankings systems used in the Bowl Championship Series standings formula.

A win over No. 1 Ohio State, coupled with a win at No. 6 Michigan on Oct. 21, and Iowa could be in BCS title-game business.

Ferentz, of all people, doesn't seem ready to make this great leap forward.

Big game?

Didn't No. 1 Ohio State just play No. 2 Texas a couple of weeks ago?

And, in terms of Iowa, wasn't there more at stake in that 1985 Michigan game?

"Just do the math, one and two, that adds up to three," Ferentz said of the teams' rankings then. "And right now Ohio State's one but we're somewhere in the teens."

Only game time will tell whether Iowa is ready for Saturday's challenge.

Some thought last year was the year, but it wasn't.

Iowa was coming off a three-year stretch where it went 31-7 and finished all three seasons in the top 10 -- joining USC, Oklahoma and Georgia as the four teams to do so.

Some touted Iowa as championship material -- even as NASCAR Kirk threw up caution flags.

"We're not an elite team," Ferentz said at the time. "We're not even close."

He was right. Iowa couldn't even get past Iowa State. Quarterback Drew Tate got knocked silly against the Cyclones and that led to a 7-5 season that included a blowout loss at Ohio State, an overtime home defeat to Michigan and an Outback Bowl loss to Florida.

"We're probably a better football team than we were a year ago at this time, but we're hardly a great football team," Ferentz said.

That may be the "aw-shucks" talking.

Iowa hopes it's not the truth.

And the Winner is ...

... We'll have to get back to you.

The sense entering this season was that the national title could go to any team because there was no one-two punch like there was a year ago when USC and Texas went 1-2 all season before Texas flipped those numbers in the Rose Bowl.

The first month certainly did not provide any epiphanies.

Let's examine the top teams in this week's USA Today coaches' poll.

1: Ohio State. OK, fine, but we could have sworn that was Penn State with the three and Ohio State with the zero at halftime last weekend in Columbus. Ohio State won by a misleading score, 28-6, raising the question: What happened to that vaunted offense?

2: USC. Um, the defense is way ahead of the offense. The Trojans led Arizona 3-0 at the half, lost their third fullback to injury and may be without standout receiver Dwayne Jarrett (shoulder) for a while.

3: Auburn. The Tigers scored seven points in a fistfight win over Louisiana State and had only a 10-0 lead on Buffalo at the half last weekend. Not the kind of performances you write songs about.

4: West Virginia. It's not encouraging when East Carolina gives you fits through three quarters. After three easy wins, West Virginia's vaunted rushing attack sputtered and the Mountaineers had to resort, with mixed results, to the pass.

5: Florida: Led Kentucky at the half, 12-7, then sent its basketball team to finish it off. Won't know for sure how good these Gators are until an Oct. 14 trip to Auburn.

6: Michigan: One week after taking Notre Dame apart in South Bend, Michigan took its home-sweet-home time in putting away Wisconsin.

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