IOWA CITY — If any media mopes try to make bowl-eligibility a significant storyline this week for Iowa’s football team, they’re lazy storytellers.
The quest for the 5-3 Hawkeyes isn’t trying to get to six wins. It’s to see how far they can push themselves in their final four games, to see if their best football is still ahead of them.
“I just think that we’ve been improving since Week 1,” said Iowa senior linebacker Anthony Hitchens. “We’re a whole different team from the beginning of the season.”
It’s time to find out if that is true, and if the Hawkeyes are something more than a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team. Their home game against ranked-too-low No. 22 Wisconsin Saturday will be an acid test. Win it, and you’re 6-3 with every reason in the world to dream of 9-3. Lose it, and the storyline is reduced to trying to beat Purdue to secure that sixth win.
Against the three most-accomplished teams that it has played, Iowa is 0-3. Which is part of the reason why Northern Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State are the most-accomplished teams Iowa has played.
None of those teams have gotten worse after playing the Hawkeyes, by the way. All are ranked.
So at the two-thirds pole, the story of Iowa’s season is this: Improved, improving, but without a win over a ranked team. Upsetting Wisconsin would fill that bill. But to do so, the Hawkeyes must perform better than they did in eluding Northwestern in overtime Saturday.
That’s the storyline. Can you beat the Badgers or can’t you? Are you going to be a team that’s taken totally seriously in November or not?
Bowl-eligibility? That’s what they’re enjoying right now at Duke, Buffalo and Tulane. Maybe at 6-2 Minnesota, too. Yeah, the Minnesota team the Hawkeyes dominated a month ago has turned around and beaten Northwestern and Nebraska.
Iowa should be focused on something bigger than that, like putting itself in position to vie for the Big Ten Legends Division title should a wacky set of circumstances unfold and both Michigan State and Michigan leave the door ajar.
“A bowl game is part of the conversation at the beginning of the year,” said Hawkeye linebacker James Morris. “We want to go to a bowl game. Is that what we’re talking about this week, or is that what we’re talking about at all? No. Nobody’s said those words. It’s just talking about winning.”
You beat Wisconsin, and you’re talking about winning at Purdue the following week. Then you’re thinking you can also beat Michigan at home and Nebraska in Lincoln.
But for even half of that to occur, the improvement Hitchens spoke of has to keep coming, and quickly. Because the Badgers are very good.