Barometer Game?

When Iowa State lines up to play Northern Iowa on the football field there has long been two main beliefs amongst Cyclone fans; 1) We’ll see these same fans again in a week or two when the Cyclones play the University of Iowa, and, 2) UNI is a barometer game for the rest of the season.

Northern Iowa has a history of being competitive against Iowa State.  The series started in 1899 with a 0-0 tie and totals 26 games with Iowa State having the 19-4-3 advantage.  Three of those games were played as away games for the Clones and they were all in the first four meetings (1899-T, 1901-T, and 1902-W).

The two teams collided sparingly from 1902-1950 totaling ten games with ISU winning nine and the other resulting in a tie.  The series was put on hold until 1987 and the Panthers and Cyclones have competed twelve times since then, all in Ames.

In those 12 games ISU holds a record of 9-3.  Dan McCarney never lost to UNI, Gene Chizik never beat UNI, and Jim Walden was 3-0 against them in his first three meetings in 1987, 1988, and 1990 before he quit trying at his job and lost his final two games with the Panthers in 1992 and 1994—by 17 and 14 points, respectively.

Still, the question lingers, is the UNI game in fact a decent measure of how the season will unfold?  To find out, let’s take a look at the last 12 meetings, since 1987.

·     Only half of the games were played as either the first or second game on ISU’s schedule.  Only worth mentioning because it is difficult for the game to be a “barometer” if the season is already a third or half over.

·     Five of the victories for Iowa State were by more than two touchdowns (27 in 2010, 23 in 2004, 41 in 2001, 19 in 1996, and 29 in 1990).  In those seasons ISU has a combined overall record of 25-32-1 and a combined conference record of 14-24-1.  However, in the 1990 and 1996 seasons the Cyclones were 4-6-1 and 2-9 overall, respectively.  Meaning that the most recent large margin victories for Iowa State occurred in seasons where ISU was at least 5-7 (2010).

·     Conversely, in the other seven games where the Cyclones lost or barely defeated UNI (seven points or less in all cases), Iowa State’s best record was 5-6 in 1988.  The closest runner-ups were 1992 with a record of 4-7 and 2006 with a record of 4-8.  Again, the matchups that happened most recently fall best in line with the theory of the UNI game being a “barometer”.

Given the trend of the closer the analysis is to present day the closer it appears to hold true, let’s just look at the games from after Dan McCarney turned the corner in Ames.  (Also, it is extremely difficult conducting any serious analysis like this of Iowa State football and including the early to mid 90’s.  Those teams were so putrid that it is akin to including severe anomalies in your data).  The six games that have taken place since 2001.

Three of the games were big wins for ISU, two of them were narrow victories, and one was a loss (thanks again Gene, we thought we had crossed that bridge after Walden left town).  In the three years that ISU won big, they reached a bowl game in two of them (2001 & 2004).  Only in 2010 when ISU was 5-7 did they fail to qualify for a bowl when they beat UNI by a wide margin in the same season.  In the three years that ISU narrowly won or lost the Cyclones were 3-9, 4-8, and 2-10.

I think what has anecdotally been proven out (because six games in the last 11 seasons and 12 games in the past 25 seasons really isn’t a great sampling) is that if Iowa State blows out UNI it doesn’t mean they will definitely flirt with bowl eligibility and have a successful season but if the Cyclones struggle and/or lose to the Panthers the season isn’t going to go very well.  This trend holds true even when looking at how UNI did in the same season.

In seasons of the last 12 games UNI has made the playoffs five times (2010, 2007, 1996, 1992, and 1987).  In those years, ISU is 3-2 against the Panthers but it is nearly impossible to develop a trend.  In 2010, UNI made the playoffs but ISU easily won and finished 5-7 on the season.  In 2007 and 1992 UNI won by more than a few points over ISU teams that proved to be not so good.  But in 1996, UNI again made the playoffs, finished 12-2, but ISU won 42-23 and still went on to have just a 2-9 record.  Mixed bag.

Other years against FCS opponents seem to go in reverse of the theory presented.  In 2005, ISU struggled big time with Illinois State before winning 32-21.  The following week was a 23-3 pounding of Iowa and at season’s end the Cyclones were 7-5 with all five of those losses being very winnable and three of them were overtime losses on the road.

In 2008, ISU opened up the season with a resounding 48-17 victory over South Dakota State.  That season would only offer up one more victory
and the team finished 2-10.

In 1999, Iowa State beat Indiana State soundly in the season opener 33-7 but only went on to win three more games and finish 4-7.  However, many of those losses were close calls with four of them coming by less than a touchdown.

Of course, saying that shouldn’t be a shocking epiphany.  When analyzing how a team’s season is likely to go based off of a lower division opponent it should be obvious that struggling with them would likely indicate a team that will struggle with the better teams later in the season on the schedule.  It just happens that UNI has been on the schedule nearly half the time since 1987.

The fact that UNI is most often the lower division team instead of any other 1AA (or, FCS) team has just given the perception that UNI itself is the “barometer”.  In reality it is the level of competition and not the specific opponent that shows how a season is likely to go.  Even then, it isn’t a lead pipe lock.

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