For the first time since 2009 -- and just the fourth time total under Kirk Ferentz -- Iowa has compiled a perfect 4-0 record in non-conference play. Now what? In two of the three previous years that happened (2003, 2009), Iowa went on to have very successful seasons -- a 10-3 campaign in 2003 highlighted by a thrilling upset win over Michigan and a thorough beatdown of Florida in the Outback Bowl and an 11-2 mark in 2009 highlighted by late game heroics in too many games to count (but especially UNI, Penn State, Michigan State, and Indiana) and the program's biggest bowl win in decades. (In the other year, 2006, they stumbled to a 6-7 record, losing six of their final seven games.) Non-conference success doesn't necessarily guarantee a successful year -- but it sure helps.
A 4-0 start to the season was not exactly a popular prediction for Iowa before the season. It's not that folks thought it would be impossible for Iowa to make it through September unscathed... just that there were reasons to be leery of nearly every non-league opponent on the slate. There were no powerhouse programs on the schedule, but there were teams that had some feature that inspired trepidation. Illinois State was an FCS team, but they were a very good FCS team, narrowly losing to North Dakota State in the FCS national championship game a season ago and returning several key players from that squad. Iowa State was projected to be bad -- but since when has that mattered in the Iowa-Iowa State series? Pitt wasn't the most formidable Power 5 opponent, but they did have a very sharp defensive mind at head coach (Pat Narduzzi) and some NFL-caliber talent at the skill positions (Tyler Boyd, James Conner). And North Texas... well, they were the least-imposing team on Iowa's schedule by a mile, but they did have Dan McCarney, who knew a thing or two about springing big upsets at Kinnick Stadium, so... And that's without even getting to Iowa themselves -- who knew what to expect from a team with so many new faces in key places?
But we know what happened: Iowa passed every September test they faced, often with flying colors. They pounced on Illinois State early and dominated, opening up a 31-0 lead before the Redbirds tacked on a pair of late scores against back-up defenders. Iowa endured a spirited attack from Iowa State in the first half, then made adjustments and largely controlled the second half before making the key plays -- on offense and defense -- to emerge from Ames with a win. Iowa faced real adversity (and some viciously hard hits) against Pitt, but C.J. Beathard and Marshall Koehn teamed up to help Iowa pull out an electrifying last-second win that won't soon be forgotten. And last weekend Iowa clobbered North Texas from the opening whistle.
The 4-0 start is nice, to be sure. It's shoved aside a lot of the negativity that festered among Iowa fans (understandably) after the dismal end to the 2014 season. The start has renewed faith -- to some extent -- in Ferentz and his assistant coaches. The offensive attack actually looks fairly coherent -- and kind of dangerous! The defense has had a few issues, but it's also been able to get pressure on the quarterback and force mistakes at key times. The special teams are no longer a debacle! The 4-0 start has created a cult hero in Marshall Koehn and showcased new levels of quality from key players like C.J. Beathard, Jordan Canzeri, Nate Meier, and Desmond King. And it's nice to know that no matter what happens the rest of the way, the rivalry trophy section of the trophy case won't be empty this year.
But this 4-0 start is really just a building block -- it's a platform for the rest of the season. The success -- or failure -- of Iowa's 2015 season is going to be determined by what happens in October and November. The nice thing about a 4-0 start is that it's raised the level of that platform. Iowa's ceiling for 2015 is higher now. Can they win 10 games this year? Well, maybe -- that would mean winning six of the next nine games (including a bowl game), which isn't really that far-fetched, especially with a schedule that remains devoid of Big Ten East powerhouses Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan. A 4-0 start means you're already 40% of the way to 10 wins. (Hooray for math!) It's no surprise that two of Iowa's four seasons with 10 or more wins under Ferentz have occurred in seasons when Iowa picked up four wins in non-conference play. In the two years they didn't put together perfect non-league records, they needed to post 7-1 (2004) and 8-0 (2002) records in league games -- just two of Iowa's best-ever marks in Big Ten play. And coincidence or not, wins over Iowa State have often been a slight harbinger of success to come for Iowa under Ferentz -- Iowa won 8 or more games in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013, all years in which they beat Iowa State. The only year they've won 8 or more games and failed to beat Iowa State? That would be 2002, which is a crazy year for so many reasons. (That said, beating Iowa State isn't a surefire guarantee of success, either -- Iowa beat Iowa State in 2006
and 2011 and went 6-7 and 7-6, respectively, in those seasons. EDIT: Iowa did not actually beat Iowa State in 2011. You can understand why I might have blocked the JANTZENING out of my memory, though.)
A 10-win season? A Big Ten championship? (Well, maybe a Big Ten West championship, at least.) Those are all still very much on the table for Iowa right now. Overall Iowa's Big Ten schedule is still fairly easy -- skipping Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan this year is a very nice perk to be sure -- but our perceptions of the teams on that schedule have changed a bit. A few teams look worse (Maryland, perhaps Nebraska). A few teams look better (Northwestern, perhaps Indiana). But it remains a manageable schedule -- the only question is how well Iowa will manage it.
October looks like an especially critical month for Iowa, beginning with this week's game against Wisconsin in Madison. On paper, that game looks like the most challenging game on Iowa's schedule this year -- Wisconsin hasn't looked quite as good as expected (especially on offense), but their defense has been stifling since the opener against Alabama and they still have dangerous weapons on offense. That game is followed by Iowa's Homecoming tilt with Illinois; the Illini appeared poised to turn some heads in the first few weeks, but a thrashing at the hands of North Carolina and an unconvincing win over Middle Tennessee has emptied out their bandwagon pretty quickly. Iowa also draws Northwestern and Maryland in October; the former has paired a shutdown defense with an oft-sputtering offense and somehow rode that combination to a 4-0 start (including a season-opening win over
Northwestern Stanford that only gets more head-scratching as the season continues (EDIT: It would be quite head-scratching if they had truly beaten themselves)), while the latter has looked overwhelmed against West Virginia (OK) and Bowling Green (uhhh).
November is Rivalry Month for Iowa -- after opening the month with a potentially tricky-looking road date against Indiana (currently 4-0, albeit against weak opponents and in somewhat unimpressive fashion), Iowa ends the year with three straight rivals: Minnesota (in a night game where Iowa will debut special "blackout" uniforms), Purdue (Our Most Hated Rival), and Nebraska (in Lincoln). Minnesota and Nebraska look like inverse reflections of each other right now: Minnesota has a very stout defense, but a very shaky and inconsistent offense, while Nebraska has a very potent offense, but a very leaky defense. (Purdue, meanwhile, still sucks.) Given all the comments from Ferentz and several players in the offseason and the early part of this season, it's not hard to imagine Iowa having a little extra chip on their shoulders for that season finale with Nebraska -- it's clear that last year's implosion in Iowa City left some demons that they would love to exorcise this season. And while it hasn't been as frequent a point of discussion, I'd certainly hope that the absolute bludgeoning that Minnesota laid on Iowa in Minneapolis last year has also given the Hawkeyes a bit of added motivation for this year's game.
So yeah, that's the next two months: they begin with one big rivalry game against a foe clad in red and white and they end with another big rivalry game against a foe clad in red and white. In between Iowa avoids the conference's biggest names (and toughest teams), but still faces several tricky opponents. In a way, it's like the preseason view of Iowa's September slate all over again: there's no one on paper that Iowa couldn't beat, but it's tough to envision Iowa coming out on top in every single game. Iowa aced the September portion of the schedule -- now it's time to see how they'll handle the October and November tests.