IOWA CITY - It might be easy to look at Iowa's recent win over Michigan as proof that the Hawkeyes have returned to national prominence.
They are certainly getting closer.
Iowa's 24-21 victory over Michigan last weekend left it at 7-4 and 4-3 in the Big Ten, clinching a winning record overall. The Hawkeyes can finish with a winning mark in the league for the first time since 2009 with a win on Friday at Nebraska - and signal to their fan base that their series with the Cornhuskers may become a rivalry after all.
Even the most optimistic Iowa fans had trouble seeing the Hawkeyes reaching seven wins after last season's 4-8 flameout. But they're one of just eight teams from a BCS-affiliated conference to improve by at least three wins in 2013.
"I wouldn't say it's strictly one win. It's just a combination of how the year has been going. We weren't happy with what happened last year, and this senior class especially took it upon themselves to say 'Hey, we're not going to let that happen again,'" Iowa sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock said. "We're trying to win every game we can and understand that last year was not acceptable."
Though Michigan has failed to live up to its expectations in 2013, the Wolverines still represented a serious test for Iowa.
Iowa (7-4, 4-3) at Nebraska (8-3, 5-2)
Friday, 11:06 a.m.
At Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
The Hawkeyes had beaten all the teams they were expected to beat, including road wins at Minnesota, Purdue and Iowa State. Given that its four losses came against teams with a combined record of 42-3, Iowa essentially lost to teams they were expected to lose to.
After 30 minutes against the Wolverines, the Hawkeyes appeared to be in trouble. Rudock threw a pair of picks that led to Michigan touchdowns. A muffed hold on a late first-half field goal left the Hawkeyes behind by 14 points and there were scattered boos at Kinnick Stadium.
What was so encouraging for the program was what happened next.
Even though Rudock threw another pick, the Hawkeyes hung around and eventually overwhelmed the Wolverines on both sides of the ball.
"I think we've definitely taken a big step...and it shows out there. It's good to see," Iowa running back Mark Weisman said.
Iowa wound up beating Michigan in Iowa City for the third straight time - a first in a series that dates back to 1900 - by scoring 17 unanswered points in the second half. The Hawkeyes held Michigan to just 158 yards and 10 first downs, and linebacker Anthony Hitchens forced a fumble with just over two minutes left to clinch the victory.
"Our defense gave us a chance to overcome the parts that weren't so good. They did an amazing job," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It was a great job of responding to a tough situation."
The Hawkeyes have likely clinched a respectable bowl bid whether they beat the Huskers or not.
What makes talk of a resurgence even more tangible for Iowa is what it has coming back next season. The Hawkeyes could have as many as eight starters back on offense, including a more experienced Rudock, and six starters back on defense. Iowa will also likely have much less turnover on its coaching staff, and league leaders Ohio State and Michigan State will be replaced by the likes of Indiana and Illinois on next year's schedule.
But there's still one big game left in 2013 against Nebraska. A win would allow the Hawkeyes to flip its 4-8 record to 8-4 and clinch a second place-finish in the Legends Division.
That'd be a finish almost no one saw coming.
"Getting a win over there would be huge for our program, just to cap off the season that we've had and give us a good jump into bowl (preparations)," Iowa center Austin Blythe said.