Nobody called this. Back in August, most experts, writers and fans had Ohio State playing either Minnesota, Wisconsin or Nebraska for the Big Ten title. Michigan State would provide Ohio State with a formidable opponent and a quality win, but nothing more. Iowa? Please. Kirk Ferentz was coaching for his job again and Hawkeye Nation was strapping in for another mediocre campaign.
That, as they say, is why they play the games.
On Saturday, the two most consistent teams in the Big Ten Conference all season will meet at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship trophy and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Both teams got to this point by playing tough defense, running the ball well and remaining largely mistake free. It's an age-old recipe for success — especially in the Big Ten — and both programs executed it at a championship level.
College Football Podcast: Championship Week Preview
Iowa vs. Michigan State (Indianapolis)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Michigan State -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Aaron Burbridge vs. Desmond King
The Big Ten's top receiver will be matched up with the conference's top corner for much of the night. Iowa will be banking on Spartans QB Connor Cook looking elsewhere for a big play. Don't bet on Cook not challenging King early. If Michigan State can establish Burbridge as a threat early on, it will open up the rest of the offense against an Iowa defense that is much better at stopping the run than the pass. If King shows any signs of needing help early, you will see Iowa's front seven loosen up and give the Spartans room to pound the ball in the run game.
2. Can Iowa establish the run?
The Hawkeyes average 203 yards rushing a game. They control the tempo with a massive offensive line and a stable of backs who run downhill. On the flip side, Michigan State is giving up fewer than 120 yards per game on the ground. If Iowa gets its running game rolling, it'll open up the play action for QB C.J. Beathard against a Spartan secondary that has been suspect at times. Beathard also can do damage with his legs. Either way, the Hawkeyes are comfortable with the ball in Beathard's hands. He hasn't turned it over since Oct. 17, a span of five games.
3. Who will make a play on special teams?
Each team won at least five games by one score or less. Iowa needed a 57-yard field goal as time expired to beat Pitt. Michigan State needed to return a botched punt to the end zone to beat Michigan. Neither team is playing for a Big Ten or national title without both luck and solid execution on special teams. The way these teams play, a blowout win is not likely in the cards for either. It is very possible that the final margin of victory is a result of a huge special teams play -- whether it be a long field goal, kick return for a score or a blocked kick.
It's no accident that Iowa leads the Big Ten in interceptions and is tied for third in the nation in points scored off of them. There is nothing flashy about the Hawkeyes, but they are always in position to make a play when they need to be. That's coaching, and Kirk Ferentz and Mark Dantonio are two of the best in the nation. Iowa's ability to limit the big play, make some of its own on defense and control the tempo with the run game is going to be the difference in this one just like it has been all season. Iowa's underrated defensive line will stifle the Spartans' running game and allow the Hawkeyes to drop into coverage in large numbers to shut down Michigan State's aerial attack. The Hawkeyes will come into this game with a chip on their shoulder and play like it throughout en route to a gritty win that silences the doubters nationally.