Conventional wisdom has Saturday's ''Big Game'' labeled anything but big and not much of a game.
After last year's result and this season's start, Iowa and Iowa State critics alike are expecting a snoozer, a clunker, a pillow fight - a meaningless matchup of also-rans. Their disheartened fanbases are all but ready to move on, with one foot out the door and one eye on the winter sports prospectus.
While there are certainly ominous signs on the horizon for these programs - both because of brutal conference schedules and glaring weaknesses on the field - I'd like to adopt the contrarian point of view and predict quite a showdown between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones at Jack Trice Stadium.
Why? National rankings or potential league championship aspirations won't be on the horizon for either squad, but a victory will breathe life into the idea of a salvaged campaign. There might even be some kind of bowl carrot dangling down the road. A loss virtually crushes those hopes and could spin 2013 out of control in a hurry.
In other words, Iowa and ISU will play with plenty of desperation. That much I can promise. The writing is on the wall for both camps. A win isn't just wanted here - it's needed. There are six ranked opponents on the Hawkeyes' Big Ten slate; five await the Cyclones once the Big 12 begins.
What can we expect this afternoon? Hard to say. Quarterbacks Sam Richardson and Jake Rudock are new to the series. Both teams appear to be lacking the offensive and defensive talent to compete with the big boys down the road, though I wouldn't read too much into what we've seen so far scheme-wise. New wrinkles will pop out of the woodwork today.
Oddsmakers have tabbed Iowa as a 2.5-point favorite, though that doesn't exactly sit well with Hawkeye backers who know Kirk Ferentz is 5-13 in games decided by six points or less since 2010. They'll recite all of the recent excruciating setbacks in great detail - including consecutive three-point losses to ISU - and add a ''how much Ferentz earns per victory'' calculation for good measure.
Cyclone supporters are far less frustrated with Paul Rhoads, though records like his current 24-28 overall mark at ISU won't earn patience and trust forever. Like Iowa, the Cyclones are going to walk a thin line between a potential December bowl destination and the 4-8 abyss.
Saturday's showdown won't necessarily make or break Ferentz and the Hawkeyes or Rhoads' Cyclones, but it will undoubtedly send the programs down different paths.
There aren't bigger fish to fry. Not this year. Players aren't looking ahead, making assumptions, or focusing more on what will happen once conference action arrives. A victory is too important at this stage in the game. Iowa has to beat ISU. The Cyclones have to beat the Hawks.
Past struggles and future challenges are of no concern to either side on Saturday. Relatively speaking, this is as big as it gets for both programs. You may not see perfect football, but you'll see passionate football. Tune in for the added meaning and importance of this very moment.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at email@example.com