It must look so familiar to Kirk Ferentz, this breakout Gophers football season. Mediocre expectations, critics sneering at their schedule, a series of last-minute heroics and the growing euphoria as victories pile up — the longtime Iowa coach lived through it all just four years ago.
The 2015 Hawkeyes shocked college football, and perhaps even themselves, by going 12-0, playing in the Big Ten championship game and earning their first Rose Bowl invitation in 25 years. Indeed, few coaches can appreciate the Gophers' accomplishments this year like one of their biggest rivals.
"They're 9-0 right now, and that's really hard to do," Ferentz told reporters. "We haven't done it a lot. Not many teams have. Take Alabama and Clemson out of the mix, it's really difficult to do that."
His 2015 squad suffered a last-minute defeat to Michigan State in Indianapolis and got pounded by Stanford in Pasadena, but Hawkeyes fans still reflect fondly on that season.
Now in his 21st year as Iowa head coach, Ferentz is having a season that is in many ways the opposite of the Gophers' storybook year. While Minnesota built an undefeated record by beating four of the six Big Ten teams with losing records, leading analysts to question how good they are, the Hawkeyes have lost three games by a total of 14 points, all to nationally ranked teams with a combined record of 22-5, causing experts to wonder if they are better than their 6-3 record.
Want proof? The Gophers, unbeaten and ranked eighth in the nation, are three-point underdogs to the Big Ten West's fourth-place team this Saturday in Iowa City.
Not that Ferentz takes much solace in a betting line.
"Losses hit you. They hit you because our guys work, not quite 12 months a year but it feels like it, and you only get 12 games," Ferentz said. "They really hurt. And the trick is, you have to somehow find a way to put it behind you."
That hasn't been so easy this season. Iowa, ranked as high as 14th after a 4-0 start, limited Michigan to only 10 points, the Wolverines' fewest in five years, but turned the ball over four times and absorbed eight sacks in a 10-3 loss. Then they outgained Penn State but committed two more critical turnovers, one that set up the decisive score, in a 17-12 loss to the Nittany Lions.
And last Saturday in Madison, the Hawkeyes erupted for 16 fourth-quarter points but lost 24-22 when a draw-play run by quarterback Nate Stanley fell 1 foot short on a two-point conversion attempt with 3:12 left.
Iowa has given up only 105 points in nine games, fewer than any Division I team except Ohio State and Georgia. Yet among the sport's 10 stingiest defenses, Iowa's is the only one with more than two losses.
"We can't be looking backwards. We have to be looking out the front window here and doing what we can to get ready for a really tough opponent," said Ferentz, whose team remains alive, mathematically, in the West Division race. "It's a discipline that takes mental toughness because it's real easy to feel bad about [the narrow losses]. That's natural, but you can't do it."
Here's what the Hawkeyes can do: Spoil a dream season by their rivals up north. Iowa has won the Floyd of Rosedale trophy 14 times in their past 18 meetings with Minnesota, including the past four in a row.
"Every time you play a ranked team, it gets your attention. To me, their ranking matches their record, and their record matches who they are and what they've done on the field," Ferentz said. "All I know is they're 9-0 and they look like a top 10 team. Yeah, it certainly gets your attention."