When the Iowa Hawkeyes lost to the North Dakota State Bison, they didn’t lose a chance to win their division or conference, but they reduced their odds of winning at least 10 games in the 2016 regular season.
Iowa must play Michigan later this year. If the Hawkeyes lose to Team Harbaugh, they’ll have to run the table in their other eight contests to win 10 before bowl season, unless they make the Big Ten Championship Game with a 9-3 record.
Iowa’s season isn’t doomed; we’ve seen teams rebound from ugly September losses to win national titles. However, the Hawkeyes plainly buckled in an early-season moment of pressure. They’re a marked team in ways which simply didn’t apply to their 2015 Rose Bowl journey.
This Iowa episode — like the possible decline it suggests — is highly instructive in the college football world.
I have identified individual case studies of the following dynamic at Georgia Tech and Northwestern and Auburn, to one degree or another, in varying contexts. The finer, granular details of each program’s track record will differ on some levels, but the broader large-scale patterns remain intact.
The simple thesis: These and other college football programs find it difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to stack together consecutive “high-level seasons,” loosely defined as winning 10 regular season games.
Iowa joins Georgia Tech, Northwestern, Auburn and others as a program where it’s extremely hard to win 10 regular season games in consecutive years. Winning eight or more games in consecutive years? That’s exponentially easier. Producing sensational single seasons here and there? That’s also very attainable for such programs.
Doing something special in two straight years? That’s the threshold these programs very rarely cross.
Can this be interpreted as a verdict on the various coaches involved? Yes, it could be… but it’s not that easy or clear-cut. Auburn should be an annual SEC contender, given its resources, history and culture. To that extent, Gus Malzahn and other recent Auburn coaches have failed more profoundly than coaches at other programs in this larger category.
For the most part, though, this is a commentary on programs. Illustrating the struggles of Iowa — one year after a huge breakthrough season — or the stumbles of Northwestern and Georgia Tech after soaring achievements is meant to convey the point that not every program can be the gold standard.
It is easy for fans to think that their program is — or can be, or (alarmingly) should be — on par with the longstanding big dogs in their conference. In select cases where programs exist in highly fertile recruiting areas and somehow fail to produce on a long-term basis, the “sleeping-giant” label applies. For fans of these programs, it’s realistic to say that the football operation is falling far short of its potential. UCLA and Arizona State step to the head of the line in this discussion.
For most programs, though, expecting consecutive 10-win regular seasons isn’t particularly realistic.
There are always degrees and measures involved, of course. Northwestern shouldn’t be expected to win 10 games in back-to-back years, but the problem with Pat Fitzgerald in recent seasons is that NU has pinballed between a really good season and a 5-7 season. The “comedown” year in Evanston needs to be a 7-5 or 8-4 season, instead of a year which unravels and leaves the Wildcats without a bowl.
Back to the broader point: While one can always find flaws in the specific fluctuations of college football programs, it remains extremely hard to win on a repeated basis at a very high level of achievement. Plenty of programs can go 8-4 and make the Belk/Texas/Music City/Foster Farms tier of bowls in consecutive seasons. Two straight 10-2 seasons — more precisely, forging the second strong season as a marked team — is something few programs can pull off at any point in college football’s ongoing story. Doing so for four, five or six seasons in a row? That’s what Hall of Fame coaches are able to accomplish.
Go through college football history. Evaluate the track records of each FBS program.
It won’t take long for you to realize just how difficult it is to win big in consecutive seasons. Iowa has reinforced that reality… even if it rebounds and authors a 10-win season this year.