ISU vs. UNI—a rivalry?

The Iowa State-Northern Iowa matchup history follows an irregular cadence. Launched in 1899, the Cyclones and Panthers have played 33 times spread out in bits and bunches across 122 years.

Three of the first four meetings played on UNI home turf. Cedar Falls must have had a comparable venue to Ames, back then, three years before Jack Trice was born and a year after USA trounced Spain for sinking the Maine.

Interestingly, both teams finished their first match scoreless. One of three scoreless ties between ISU and UNI near the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

The most recent game, a few days after USA quit Afghanistan, must have resembled the inaugural punt-fest between those maskless leather heads. But last Saturday, both teams managed to score a touchdown, and ISU won a field goal war filled with arresting defense and cautious Iowa State offense.

Overall, ISU holds a clear advantage in wins over UNI at 24-6-3 (ISU wins roughly 7 out of 10 games). But half of the Cyclone loses to the Panthers have taken place in the twenty-first century.

ISU has played UNI 13 times since 2001, and UNI has won three times, all at Jack Trice Stadium (2007: 13-24; 2013: 20-28; 2016: 20-25). By the way, there have been no ISU-UNI games played in Cedar Falls since 1902 when the Cyclones walloped the Panthers 52-0.

I can’t lie. I went into last Saturday’s game hoping the Cyclones would win by at least four touchdowns, something akin to the last time the intrastate RIVALS played in Cedar Falls.

Northern Iowa and Iowa State should not be "rivals" but the statistics show otherwise.

It’s difficult to know when eras make comparisons meaningless, but the gap in matches between 1950 to 1987 seems to be the most significant divider between a distant past and recent memory. UNI became a Division I-AA team in 1981 and a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 1985. (Now, Division I-AA is called the Football Championship Series, FCS. More on this below.)

There was also a match-gap between 1916 and 1936. Essentially, there are three clearly divided eras of the ISU-UNI matchup with games rarely played in consecutive years: 1899-1916—7 games; 1936-1950—also 7 games; 1987-present—19 games and counting.

Perhaps not playing every year softens the expectation of rivalry and reinforces the friendly nature of Iowa State inviting Northern Iowa over for an exhibition on a warm autumn day.

ISU has lost to UNI five times since 1987. The most recent three loses are listed above, and the two other loses came in consecutive meetings but not consecutive years: 1992 (10-27) and 1994 (14-28). Once again, the win-loss statistics from the most recent era of the ISU-UNI matchup indicate ISU beats UNI a bit more than 7 out of 10 games.

A big brother-little brother rivalry is bad for ISU because we can never really win unless we smash UNI and grace national sports highlights with dynamic offense. It’s always good for UNI because they are supposed to lose, badly, and even then it’s still a win because it’s one of the few ways UNI can register a national sports headline. The only other way to garner attention of similar magnitude is for UNI to win the FCS championship! (UNI almost did exactly that in 2005.)

ISU has beaten UNI by less than a touchdown seven times since 1987 and lost by two or more touchdowns twice. Granted, ISU has shut out UNI three times and beat UNI by two or more touchdowns seven times since 1987, but the frequency of narrow wins and final scores indicate competitive games are the mode, ten of 19 games since 1987 have been decided by less than two touchdowns.

ISU belongs to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS—formerly know as Division I-A). FBS and FBC often play one another, typically early in the season, but FBS and FCS diverge sharply at regular season’s end. FCS schools are not bowl eligible, and they do not appear in the AP or Coaches’ Poll.

In FCS, the best teams earn a seed in a tournament based on regular season play. Since UNI became an FCS team, they have won their conference, the Missouri Valley, sixteen times. And, as alluded above, UNI often plays in FCS tournaments.

FBS teams with at least six wins can play in post season bowl games and earn a spot in the playoff. Not only is ISU in the FBS, we belong to a "Power Five" conference affording greater opportunity to win a berth in a playoff bowl game

leading to national championship, the truer college football championship.

UNI is a great football team, clearly one of the best teams in the FCS, but they are literally in a different league than ISU, so the irregular matches with UNI should not take on the aura of a rivalry.

ISU vs. UNI should be a game for ISU to test riskier plays for genuine rivalries with top tier FBS teams, Iowa and Kansas State, for example. But ISU often struggles to put UNI under heal, and too often loses to UNI.

Granted, ISU wins about three out of four matches with UNI, but unless ISU can turn the match into a routine drubbing with losses occurring less that 1 in 10 matches, the ISU-UNI "rivalry" should end.

Perhaps ISU can instead rekindle a lost rivalry with a more compatible team like Minnesota or Nebraska or Missouri?


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