King-sized opportunity for Hawks, Clones to beat football royalty

ORLANDO, Fla. — Normally, if you’d heard Iowa and Iowa State were playing in the Holiday and Camping World bowls, you’d have said that’s nice, but it isn’t anything that will remembered vividly as time passes.

Unless you’re a college football fanatic, you probably can’t name who played in those two games last year. Northwestern beat Utah in the Holiday, Syracuse handled West Virginia in the Camping World, and college football history wasn’t made in either.

But this season’s deal for the two Iowa teams, which will all take place within a 20-hour stretch starting tonight in San Diego, is different.

Iowa’s got USC tonight in the Holiday Bowl. Not one of the Arizonas, not one of the Washingtons. The University of Southern California. All those Heismans, all those national titles, the iconic uniforms and helmets, the noble white horse mascot ridden by a Trojan warrior, the distinctive football history that needs no explanation.

Iowa State’s got Notre Dame on Saturday in the Camping World Bowl. Not Washington State or Memphis or Tulsa or anyone else it has played in a bowl since Alabama in 2001. The University of Notre Dame. All those Heismans and national titles. The iconic uniforms and helmets. The leprechaun mascot. The distinctive football history that needs no explanation.

Such programs exist in the Big Ten and Big 12. But we’re used to seeing the Cyclones square off with Oklahoma and Texas. We’ve repeatedly seen the Hawkeyes battle Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State. Iowa State has never faced Notre Dame. No Iowa team has since the Hawkeyes in 1968. Fifty-one flipping years ago!

On top of that, the game is in Florida, where no Iowa State team has played since it beat Florida State in 1975. The Cyclones’ nonconference schedule that season was UCLA, Air Force, Florida State and Utah. Iowa’s was Syracuse, Penn State and USC.

This year, Iowa played Middle Tennessee and Iowa State played Louisiana Monroe. They were designated wins to get them pointed toward bowl eligibility. All the big boys do it, but it didn’t used to be that way.

Iowa is out of its comfort zone tonight. The only time Kirk Ferentz will now take a team out West is for a bowl. The Hawkeyes’ last win in California was in 1987, against Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl. Iowa lost the last six times it played Pac-12 teams away from Kinnick Stadium, three times at campus sites and three times in bowls dating to 1997.

Iowa State has never played Notre Dame, never even been on Notre Dame’s radar. The Fighting Irish have a lot of traditional rivals like USC, Navy and Stanford. They have frequently played Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue over the years, will play Wisconsin in Green Bay next year and in Chicago in 2021, and Ohio State the following two years. They are contracted to play four to six ACC teams every year through 2037.

It wouldn’t have mattered if it were the Camping World Bowl, the Sugar Bowl or the I-80 Mile Marker #117 Bowl, playing Notre Dame is a big deal for Iowa State. Especially a 10-win Notre Dame team.

The last time Iowa played USC was on a king-size stage, the Orange Bowl in January 2003. The Hawkeyes, as good as they were that season, were outclassed.

Iowa’s longest current losing streak to any team is six straight, to USC and Penn State. But we can easily remember Hawkeyes wins over the Nittany Lions. Their last victory over the Trojans was in 1961. Fifty-eight flipping years ago!

If you’re an Iowa State or Iowa team and you beat Notre Dame or USC, you don’t have to say any more than that from this weekend through the end of time. You beat Notre Dame or USC.

No, these aren’t College Football Playoff games. They aren’t Rose or Orange or Sugar bowls. They are, however, opportunities for the Hawkeyes and Cyclones to give themselves and their fans something that would burn brightly and warmly in Iowa for a very long time.