The college football season is starting to turn the corner into crunch time, with only weekend left in October and the first Playoff Committee rankings. The Iowa Hawkeyes are one of the surprise unbeaten teams still on the board. They have a clear path to the College Football Playoff and even if you don’t believe in them that much, a realistic path to the Rose Bowl.
Kirk Ferentz’s team is enjoying a renaissance because of defense and the running game. Iowa ranks 11th in the country in points allowed and their biggest win, a 10-6 triumph at Wisconsin, came because the defense consistently came up with big stops in either the red zone or that other key area around their own 40-yard line. The Hawkeyes have NFL-caliber talent in the secondary with free safety Jordan Lomax and corner Greg Mabin, and have played consistent football in the front seven.
The running game has been keyed for most of the year by Jordan Lanzeri, who rushed for 698 yards in the first six games. Lanzeri then missed a big game with Northwestern last week and Iowa showed its depth. Akrum Wadley rumbled for 204 yards and four touchdowns against a good team, underscoring the quality of the offensive line, long the pride and joy of Ferentz.
Iowa’s other big win came against Pitt when the Hawkeyes pulled out a thrilling 27-24 win at home, with Marshall Koehn drilling a 57-yard field goal on the final play. At the time it was a win of debatable quality. You can never tell how good the Panthers really are. But Pitt has gone on to a 4-0 start in ACC play and each win strengthens the Iowa resume.
The Hawkeyes are in command of the Big Ten West. Wisconsin is the only team within one game in the standings, and Iowa has the head-to-head tiebreaker. So long as the Hawkeyes don’t lose twice in the final five games, they’ll head to Indianapolis for their first appearance in a Big Ten Championship Game.
Those final five games are as follows—vs. Maryland, at Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and at Nebraska on Black Friday to close the season. The game at Indiana could be interesting—the Hoosiers nearly upset Ohio State and hung with Michigan State for three quarters yesterday. IU seems to save its best games for the ones they have the least chance of winning.
A rivalry game with Minnesota presents a good challenge, but the Golden Gophers haven’t been as good as I thought they would be this year. The road trip to Nebraska will be difficult. My gut instinct is to say the Cornhuskers will win that one, but Nebraska is having “one of those years” where they can’t buy a break in a close game and Iowa will likely be favored, as long as they’re still unbeaten.
Winning those five games sets up a possible clash of unbeaten in the Big Ten Championship Game, with Iowa against the Ohio State/Michigan State winner. If the game is against #1 Ohio State it’s impossible to imagine that the Hawkeyes could win and be left out of the Playoff. If it’s against the Spartans, I could see Iowa getting robbed by the Committee, but it’s still more probable than not that they qualify.
Almost as important is the push for a berth in the New Year’s Six. The Big Ten is guaranteed a spot in the Rose Bowl, which means Iowa is also in a race for style points against Michigan and whomever loses the Michigan State/Ohio State game. If you assume the Hawkeyes will reach the Big Ten Championship Game and lose it—and that’s what I would assume—then it will be important to close the regular season undefeated and then at least put up a decent fight in Indianapolis.
However it shakes out this has been a nice comeback year for Kirk Ferentz, someone who’s done an admirable job over the years and was hearing the wolves at his door after a five-year stretch where his teams averaged just less than seven wins a year. Iowa was patient with their head coach, knowing they had a winner and this year is their reward.