To call Iowa under-estimated entering the 2015 college football season wouldn't come even close to properly stating the degree to which the Hawkeyes have thus far surpassed even the most starry-eyed zealot's definition of “success” for head coach Kirk Ferentz and his team.
Of the current members of the AP Top 25, only the No. 3 Utah Utes were provided less love entering the season's opening weekend back in September.
But as the Hawkeyes head into their bye week, we take a look both in the rear-view mirror, as well as into the all-knowing, all-seeing FBS Crystal Football to dissect just how it is this Iowa team now finds itself within grasp of a possible Cinderella appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis as the representatives of the West Division.
Prior to the Northwestern game, ABC's Kirk Herbstreit called out Iowa for the “embarrassing” nature of its early-season scheduling. After the game, Herbstreit was singing a very different tune, however, as he gushed over Iowa's ability to win the big games. The release of the most recent polls simply reinforces that line of thought, as the No. 25 Pitt Panthers break into the poll at 5-1 for the first time this season, meaning Iowa has now beaten three Top 25 and Power 5 opponents, two of them on the road. If Illinois manages to knock off Wisconsin in Champaign on Saturday, the Fighting Illini could make their way into next week’s well poll, meaning yet another big win for the Hawkeyes in the strength of schedule department.
Iowa has long preached a basic approach to game-day preparation, known simply as “next man in.” Nowhere in recent memory has an Iowa team more epitomized that simple philosophy than the 2015 edition of the Hawkeyes. On the season, Iowa has now called upon no fewer than seven second- and, at least in the case of running backs Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr., third-stringers to spot an injured starter. And as a nervous Hawkeye Nation held its breath to see what would happen next, those reserves simply lined up, put their heads down, and went about their business. Not only performing admirably, but in Wadley’s case specifically, also doing so in record-tying (4 rushing TDs vs. Northwestern) manner. All in a day's work seems to be the ever-more necessary Hawkeye Mantra.
Let the record state in the interest of full disclosure that in January 2015, following Iowa's disastrous showing (I'd say performance, but that might be overselling it in light out the outcome) in the TaxSlayer Bowl, I was one of the most vocal critics of keeping Ferentz and his coaching staff around for another year. But then “Old Kirk” went and did something totally unexpected, and to his credit exactly what was needed. He and his staff turned back to 1999, the year he took over the Hawkeyes from Hayden Fry, and to some degree 1981, when he joined the Iowa staff as Fry's offensive line coach. It was that “back to basics” approach to recruiting and coaching basics that has fueled Iowa's sudden re-emergence on the B1G and national stage. While it's certainly a topic of conversation in the state of Iowa, there's no question it's also been noticed throughout the conference where the coaching carousel has been whizzing away in recent months. What they're saying is how effective “New Kirk” and his staff have been at preparing the entire team on a week-to-week basis.
Iowa has never been a team that has had to be concerned with battling the perceptions game. Generally speaking, that's been when the Hawkeyes are the most dangerous, however. There's a reason Iowa fans enshrined a tradition in the ‘80s of performing the Hokey Pokey after a big upset victory. Because it symbolized something special had just happened, and why not have some fun with it? But as the Hawkeyes have continued their recent ascent up the AP poll in recent weeks, expectations have changed dramatically. Suddenly there's talk of, dare I repeat it, a B1G West championship. And so, starting with the Hawkeyes’ next game against a reeling Maryland team, we'll see if Iowa can in fact once again do what's necessary, and now expected, and live up to the new-found hype.
5. A Whole Lotta Heart
It seems almost trite to repeat such an overused analogy, but it's all about heart. And when it comes to chemistry, this team certainly has boatloads to spare. For a group of guys and their coaches who've found themselves craving success for so long, they haven't missed a beat as it's come to them. This speaks volumes not just to the success of this squad, but also to the character of the players on it. They believe in themselves, and more importantly, in their brothers in arms.
Second Half Snapshot
An overview of the Iowa’s final five regular season games has the Hawkeyes playing three out of four at home in Kinnick Stadium, where they are 4-0. More importantly, it has the Hawkeyes coming home after surviving the most vicious portion of their schedule, bruised, battered, but certainly not beaten. And while it would be easy to simply write off the remaining games of the season leading up to the Nov. 29 border rivalry/trophy game against Nebraska, don’t expect this Hawkeyes team to get caught looking ahead. Instead, look for it on the practice field, executing the basics, and preparing every single player for the possibility of playing time against the next opponent and only the next opponent.
Next Game: Saturday, Oct. 31 vs. Maryland
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network and a native Iowan currently based in Southern California. Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and is a former contributing writer for The Daily Iowan and a die-hard Hawkeye. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.