Howe: A Lot on Line

Through 10 games, Iowa has shown an ability to bounce back from a disastrous 2012. As significant as is that progress, the final two games of the regular season will define this Hawkeye team.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - A little more than a year ago, Iowa football regrouped. In the next 10 days, we'll find out just how successful it was at doing so.

The Hawkeyes wrap up their regular season with games against Michigan and Nebraska. The results will determine whether or not the they're "back."

Win the the pair against high-profile teams and the country takes notice. Split the contests and you've shown marked progress from last year's 4-8 disaster and hope for the future. Lose them and the apathy creeping into Iowa City increases.

A lot certainly rode on outcomes in recent Novembers as is the nature of the sport. A more important 10-day stretch at this time of year hasn't come around during Kirk Ferentz's 15 years guiding the program. Cases can be made for there being equally critical periods but none with greater gravity.

In 2002, the Hawkeyes were protecting a perfect conference season. Two years later, and again in '09, they were competing for league titles nearing Thanksgiving.

The '08 campaign probably most resembled the situation in which Iowa finds itself today. It missed out on the postseason the previous year. Outsiders wondered if Ferentz could rebuild it for a second time.

Turned out, the coach had it in him. The Hawkeyes entered November at 5-4 but won their four remaining games, including the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. The next season saw them go 11-2 and Ferentz received a contract extension through 2020.

Expected to compete for a Big Ten title in '10, Iowa faltered. A team filled with NFL talent on both sides of the ball slipped to 8-5 followed by a combined 11-14 mark the next two seasons.

The Hawkeye faithful felt worse coming into this season than it had in '08, however. Critics had grown more tired of Ferentz and his hefty salary. The longer you stay, the more naysayers emerge even if you're Hayden Fry.

Those folks still are out there waiting to pounce should Iowa drop these next two ballgames. Conversely, an 8-4 finish would silence the people piling on the last 12 months. Many talking heads in the national media would fall into that group.

Uncertainly adds intrigue to these final two contests. Viewing the three teams to this point of the season, it's plausible that any of the three possible scenarios plays out for Iowa. That's different than how things looked in August when two losses seemed likely.

Two wins perhaps send the Hawkeyes to the Gator or Outback Bowl. That would turn heads and create great momentum for a team returning a lot of key parts next season when the schedule drops Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

Perception matters. It affects tickets sales and recruiting. Both currently are trending in the wrong direction and a 6-6 record probably won't change that.

The Hawkeyes remain in the hunt for several strong prospects in the '14 class. One of them, Missouri OT Brian Wallace, is officially visiting for Saturday's Michigan game. Tyler Wiegers, a QB who recently de-committed from Rutgers, also could be in town. WR Adonis Jennings, JUCO DE Torey Hendrick and OT Chukwuma Okorafor, along with a host of '15 recruits, are watching closely.

A collapse in the next 10 days doesn't spell disaster. It just means Iowa wasted a great opportunity. And that would be tough for Hawkeye Nation to swallow.

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