Howe: Nebraska Outcome Looms Large for Iowa

Despite missing out on a Big Ten Championship, a lot remains on the table for Iowa Friday when it plays host to Nebraska in the annual Heroes Game. As HI Publisher Rob Howe writes, the outcome of the contest means a lot to public perception of the Hawkeyes program. And that's important.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Though a championship flew out the window last weekend, a lot remains on the line for Iowa when it plays host to Nebraska on Friday. <>There's the matter of the Hawkeye trophy case. Right now, they have one to move into their new state of the art facility this winter. And the Heroes Trophy leaves town if the Huskers get out of Kinnick Stadium with a victory.

"We've lost three trophies this year. We'd like to keep one of them," Iowa running back Mark Weisman said.

That's something to play for. It's fun for players to raise it over their heads at game's end and parade it by the fans.

The hardware angle takes a back seat to the bigger picture, however. If perception is, in fact, reality, the Hawkeyes can greatly affect how they're viewed outside the walls of their locker room.

Iowa sits on seven wins, one less than it had last year. It's very important to get off of that number. Very important.

Nobody aims to be worse than yesterday when they get up in the morning. If you're not getting better, you're standing still. Stagnancy can be crippling in college athletics.

The Hawkeyes bottomed out two years ago at 4-8. They revived the fan base by reversing their regular-season record and earning a trip to the Outback Bowl against SEC power LSU last January.

Naturally, that heightened optimism for this fall. Iowa faced a manageable schedule and returned eight starters on offense and the defense line. It was tabbed by national analyst Kirk Herbstreit as a dark horse for the first four-team playoff.

The Hawkeyes already have fallen short of Big Ten Network Senior Writer Tom Dienhart's preseason prediction. He pegged them as the top team in the West Division and at third overall in the conference behind Michigan State and Ohio State. Plenty of fans of the Black and Gold were right on board, predicting a double- figure win total.

The assertion that Iowa was tacking a soft schedule proved to be true. It has yet to beat an FBS team with a winning record. It lost at home to two-win Iowa State and at Maryland, who is 4-3 in the Big Ten. Murder's row it was not.

In addition, the Hawkeyes have avoided major injuries. Travis Perry, Adam Cox, Darian Cooper, Riley McCarron, Jon Wisnieski, etc. would have helped and provided depth, but it's hard to make a case that they would have raised the win total.

Granted, some people overrated Iowa coming into the season. But, that shaped perception.

To date, Iowa has come up short in moving the needle of public opinion in a positive direction. And it needed to be when you consider home attendance has dropped, including only 64,210 for Ball State on Sept. 6.

The most accurate gauge on the fans' feelings towards a program is fannies in the seats. If they leave Kinnick Friday after watching a loss, it will spell problems with Minnesota highlighting the '15 home slate . Forget about Illinois State and North Texas, Pitt, Illinois, Maryland and Purdue won't plug the meter much either.

The difference between seven and eight wins is not being overstated. It's the Grand Canyon.

Iowa is presented with an opportunity to keep a trophy, beat a key rival for a second year in a row on national TV, better its bowl outlook, register your first win against a program with a winning record and, most important, save some face in a season that's witnessed some highs but some painful lows. That helps hold together a fan base becoming more fragmented.

"I think we have two cracks to get (to eight wins)," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday when asked if it's important to reach last year's win total. 

"You could play that game.  It's like last week.  We wanted to win last Saturday, now it's Friday.  The only thing that's changed is the day.  That's our goal, is to win this week."

Last week was a debilitating, 26-24, loss to Wisconsin in an electric environment at Kinnick. It ended the Hawkeyes' run at their first Big Ten title since 2004 but the effort and fight against the first-place Badgers provided hope for this week and the future.

Lose to Nebraska, a team with a coach's future in doubt riding a two-game losing streak, and that momentum evaporates. As Ferentz said, Iowa still could match last year's eight wins but the final one likely would come in a lesser bowl against a ho-hum opponent.

Defeat the Huskers and the bowl outlook brightens. There, you receive a crack at a better opponent to get to nine wins.

"It's vert big," defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "We want to show improvement from last year and get nine wins."

In that regard, the Iowa players and their fans are on the same page. Even if this season doesn't bring the championship they both wanted, it's important to show the train continuing to move forward, distancing itself from '12.

A win Friday doesn't decide next fall's record. It sure can affect it, however.

Perception plays a big role for fans choosing to attend games and buy merchandise. It's critical income.

Iowa can afford a loss, so to speak, but apathy will drain the account. A win Friday would be a much-needed deposit.

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