Iowa's last trip to the FedEx Orange Bowl didn't go well.
USC had a lot to do with it, as a squad loaded with NFL talent (Carson Palmer, Justin Fargas) thumped the Hawkeyes 38-17. But Iowa didn't help itself, either. The Hawkeyes were uncharacteristically undisciplined, committing 13 penalties and two turnovers in the loss.
"It was more where we were at as a program, more than anything else," Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz told me Saturday morning. "The year before, we broke the ice, we went to our first bowl, it was my third year there. And we just got off the track in that month of December in 2002. It wasn't like our plan was that much different, but we were just a little distracted.
"We had had a quote-unquote storybook season. I really liken it a lot to 1981, where we broke the ice of 19 straight losing seasons. We just didn't handle it well. We didn't handle prosperity well. It's not that we were bad, but we just didn't have the focus you need to beat a good team."
Many would call 2009 a storybook season for Iowa, which won its first nine games, eight in come-from-behind fashion, and produced several of the more exciting finishes of the college football season. But that's where the similarities with the 2002 squad end.
Ferentz has taken a different team to Miami to play No. 9 Georgia Tech on Tuesday night in the Orange Bowl (Fox, 8 p.m. ET). It's a group that has tasted success before and handled the ups and downs well throughout the fall.
"We won nine games last year, we were nationally ranked," Ferentz said. "The majority of the guys that are doing the heavy lifting for us this year were in the Outback Bowl, a January game, and we played a very worthy SEC opponent and handled it well. I just think we're in a different place than we were, certainly, in 2002."
Iowa's focus rarely if ever wavered this fall, in large part because the team was constantly underestimated and faced several bouts with adversity. Though individual players earned regional and national recognition, there was no Brad Banks on this team.
And since every Saturday brought a major battle for Iowa, overconfidence simply was not an option.
"I don't think there's anybody on our team that's overly impressed with what we've done this year. We're happy about the season, we're proud of it, but nobody's patting each other on the back. We all realize we've got a very tough game in front of us."