Although it was hard to see following a 7-6 season and a blowout bowl loss to Tennessee, Iowa may be on the verge of a third wave of big success under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz. Heading to Madison at 4-0 this weekend, the Hawkeyes are likely playing for a national ranking as well as the inside track for the Big Ten West title this season.
To be the best in a conference or division, eventually you have to beat the best. Since divisional play began in 2011, Wisconsin is simply the best in their division (Leaders previously, West now), having won two division titles and having made three conference championship games in four seasons. Thus, the target is on the Badgers as the de facto favorite until proven otherwise.
This could be the opportunity to knock the defending champion off the top perch right away, and Iowa could be the major beneficiary of such a changing of the guard.
One good analogy for the ongoing struggle for relevance in the Big Ten has been provided a few times by Scott Dochterman of the On Iowa Live podcast and Cedar Rapids Gazette: Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa are like three polar bears fighting and scrapping to stay on top a small piece of ice.
Given the style of play these teams usually employ, the analogy is not much of a stretch.
Right now, Wisconsin and Michigan State have taken a long hold on that patch of ice at the top of the conference (alongside blue bloods like Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, who generally don’t have to scrap and claw as much to stay at the top over time). Minnesota and Nebraska have tried the past couple seasons to knock these teams off, but the Badgers and Spartans keep pushing those teams back into the proverbial cold water.
For programs like Iowa, sometimes this leads to an extended period where the football team is fighting over a smaller patch of ice with lesser programs like Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, etc. After all, proud programs like Iowa don’t want to go back to the end of the line with the usual likes of Purdue, Indiana, and Rutgers.
But the place these programs really want to be is at the top, fighting with the best of the blue-bloods every season for conference championships and big bowl game stakes. Since 2010, the only two “outsiders” able to compete have been Wisconsin and Michigan State.
In those past five years, Wisconsin has 30 conference wins and MSU has 32 (Ohio State is the only program with more at 34 wins). Not surprisingly, these are the only three teams with a conference championship in this span.
No other team has more than 22 wins in the past five seasons, which means Iowa’s 19-21 mark puts it firmly in the mix with lesser teams like Northwestern and Minnesota (15 wins apiece). But go back to 2008 and 2009, and you’ll see Iowa right in the mix with 9-4 and 11-2 seasons. And a few years before that in 2002, only a loss to Iowa State kept an 11-1 Iowa team from possibly claiming a spot in the BCS Championship instead of Ohio State.
So Kirk Ferentz has been at the pinnacle, twice. He’s had to change some members of his staff and revitalize his coaching strategy to become more aggressive, but these changes are working. Iowa is scoring nearly 38 points per game against decent competition, not counting the North Texas team played last weekend.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin lost a head coach for the second time in three years following a 59-0 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. Although Paul Chryst returns from the staff of Bret Bielema three seasons ago, the continuity loss is significant. Add to that some injuries to key players like Corey Clement, and the Badgers don’t look anything like the team that normally pummels lesser competition and midrange Big Ten foes with running game and defensive toughness.
Iowa nearly stopped Wisconsin a season ago, falling just short 26-24. That type of competitive play has been more typical than not in this rivalry, and Iowa is very motivated to go win that Heartland Trophy for the first time since 2009.
Iowa also appears to be a program back on the rise, thanks to those changes in Kirk Ferentz and the best quarterback play this program has seen since Ricky Stanzi. Iowa runs into this game with a ton of momentum, ramping up the good results over the month of September. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has not looked dominant in the past couple weeks against lesser competition.
Add it all together, and this looks like the perfect opportunity for Wisconsin to possibly be knocked off that small patch of ice for the first time in the past half decade. Even with the game in the friendly home confines of Camp Randall Stadium.
It could be a changing of the guard this weekend in the West Division. That would be a huge change, and certainly a welcome one in Iowa City.