Something special. Now that we've hit a much-needed bye week and have the opportunity to catch our breath, get our bearings and take stock of the situation, this is as good of a time as any to look back on the makings of what is, by all accounts, the making of a special season.
Seven weeks into the year, Iowa has crept into the Top 25, started out a robust 3-0 in the Big Ten on two hard-fought victories and one laugher, and the national media is justifiably raising its eyebrows at a squad that hasn't been ranked in several years. A dynamic, fearless first-year starter is blowing past expectations, and while fans wish he'd seen the field more last season, his limited opportunities then were nowhere near as productive as these. An "undersized" dynamo of a running back and an ever-improving offensive line have jump-started the running game, and the result is easily the best offensive output we've seen from a heretofore unheralded offensive coordinator. Iowa's rush defense is rounding into terrifying form as one of the best in the nation, to say nothing of the Big Ten, and that crafty Kirk Ferentz has found some serious talent and leadership in the ranks of 8-man high school ball. A local kicker is wowing fans and swinging games with his massive range, the return game is strong, and the team is working so cohesively as a whole that even the most ardent of doubters over the last few years are forced to admit that this Ferentz guy knows a thing or two about running a football program.
Yeah, it's just a shame this team had that early loss to Iowa State and no shot at facing the other top team in the conference—wait, wait, I was talking about the 2002 Iowa team. Who'd you think I meant?
Okay, no more dirty tricks like going more than a decade into the past. Let's try this one again. [clears throat] It's seven weeks into the season, and Iowa is 7-0 and surging up the polls. It's a surprise, but it's no fluke or illusion; the Hawkeyes have gone to two of their toughest Big Ten opponents (plus the always-treacherous trip to Iowa State) and beaten all three while flexing some serious defensive muscle. The rushing attack has already featured a pair of backs, largely due to necessity, and the brash and fearless QB has both a steady possession receiver (Mr. Third Down, we could call him, for his ability to move the chains) and a deep target with incredible hands, to say nothing of multiple NFL-caliber tight ends. The defensive line has taken control of multiple games, even ones where Iowa's offense has struggled to get going and needed the help, and the secondary is led by the Big Ten's best, meanest cover corner (to say nothing of the other three rangy playmakers). The sky is truly the limit for this Hawkeye squad, who has the national media buzzing about contending for the National Championship.
Yeah, it's just a shame Northwestern had to go and illegally injure Ricky Stanzi and ruin the perfect run and—wait, wait, I was talking about the 2009 Iowa team. Who'd you think I meant?
Fine. This year. 2015. C.J. Beathard has surpassed all expectations as Iowa's full-time, undisputed starter, even as dings and bruises from a series of tough opponents (four top-30 defenses nationally in the last five weeks: 7, 17, 18 and 30) have robbed him of practice time and full capability on the field. When Beathard took a huge shot on 3rd and goal on a drive that would end in a field goal to put Iowa up 33-10 with under 11 minutes to play, he took his sweet time getting up and limping off the field. Maybe he goes back in if Iowa needed him at all, but it didn't, so he didn't. The man needs a break.
Jordan Canzeri, we know is out for a while as his ankle heals. Tevaun Smith was mostly used for decoy purposes in limited snaps against Northwestern; it's good to see him back on the field but he needs this week off too. Perhaps Jake Duzey finally makes his way back, and the offensive tackle situation should solidify more by Iowa's Halloween tilt against Maryland.
And yet this triage unit of an offense just hamblasted the vaunted Northwestern defense to the tune of 40 points and nearly 500 yards. Akrum Wadley led the charge with over 200 yards rushing in relief of Canzeri, and if Iowa can get LeShun Daniels back into playing shape in the next couple of weeks, depth at tailback won't be a concern going forward.
Indeed, if there's one takeaway from not only the Northwestern win but the first seven weeks, it's that Iowa's in better shape to do something special than it has ever been under Ferentz. The 2002 team could never overcome the ISU loss, the inability to win an undisputed conference championship or the two-team "playoff" format. This year's team doesn't have to worry about any of those. Does that mean we think Iowa should be a favorite in the Big Ten Championship against one of the Big Three of Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan? Maybe, maybe not—we're not Vegas here—but at the very least these Hawkeyes would have what the 2002 team desperately needed: an opportunity.
As for the other season of comparison, not only has Beathard passed the all-critical "survive the Northwestern game" test, but he's also keeping Iowa out of the trouble it found itself in too often in 2009. Iowa faced five second-half deficits in its nine-game winning streak, including four in fourth quarters, and two more games came down to a total of five points against truly mediocre competition. Iowa averaged less than 10 points per margin of victory in its streak to start the 2009 season (including a total margin of 69 points after seven games) (nice); this year it's over 17 per game. The 2009 team was 74th in total offense by the time it was 9-0; this 2015 iteration is sitting prettier at 54th and nearly 70 more yards per game—and again, against tough competition and with backups everywhere you look.
We spent so much time during the late weeks of those seasons—and the aftermaths—wondering what if, wondering what it would look like had Iowa not been stricken with bad luck. People, this is what it looks like. And while all it takes is one bad game to take CFP hopes off the table, that hasn't happened yet and there is some small-but-real chance that it doesn't happen, and that Iowa finds itself at 13-0.
We're about to head into late October with nothing off the table. Iowa's on the same tier of the THOR+ rankings as its brethren atop the B1G East. It'll likely take some late-season luck, but dammit, isn't Iowa due some of that luck? Why not us? At long last, why not us?
Go Iowa Awesome.