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Can Iowa Navigate the Craziness of the 2021 College Football Season?

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Iowa has already suffered one major upset this season. Can the Hawkeyes avoid another one over the next five weeks?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2007 college football season was one of the craziest in memory. Over the course of the year, 59 ranked teams lost to unranked or lower-ranked opponents, teams ranked in the AP’s top five lost a record-setting thirteen games to unranked opponents, and team ranked #2 in the country lost an astounding seven times during the final nine weeks of the regular season. The champion of the 2007 season was LSU, a team that lost two games in triple overtime and spent the entire season living on a razor’s edge and avoiding upsets by lower-ranked SEC opponents. The entire season was a wild, unpredictable, chaotic mess, which made for one of the most exciting and memorable years college football had seen in decades.

That 2007 season may have found its spiritual successor in the 2021 campaign. Forty-seven ranked teams have lost games through the first seven weeks of the season (which CBS Sports believed to be the highest pace of ranked upsets since the AP Top 25 began in 1936), an unranked opponent defeated the #1 team in the country for the first time since USC lost to Oregon State in 2008, and top-10 teams have dropped like flies all season long.

The #2 Iowa Hawkeyes were victimized by the chaos when they fell to Purdue two weeks ago, and the upsets continued this past week as #8 Oklahoma State lost 24-21 to unranked Iowa State and #7 Penn State was defeated in a record-setting nine overtimes by unranked Illinois. Several other top teams narrowly avoided suffering major upsets of their own, with #10 Oregon falling behind 14-0 to unranked UCLA, #3 Oklahoma having to rally from a ten-point first half deficit to beat the woeful Kansas Jayhawks, and #2 Cincinnati struggling to put away a rudderless Navy team.

Both of the Week 8 losses by AP top ten teams could have major implications for the Hawkeyes’ ranking and playoff resume. While Iowa State’s victory over the Cowboys helped the Hawkeyes by knocking off another undefeated team and validating Iowa’s 27-17 road victory over the Cyclones as a quality win, Penn State’s home loss to a woeful Illinois team that came into the game with a 2-5 record removed some of the shine from Iowa’s signature win over the then-#3 Nittany Lions. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford appeared visibly pained and was clearly limited by the injury he suffered against Iowa two weeks prior, and the Nittany Lions could be in danger of losing several more games should Clifford continue to be hampered going forward. Iowa’s victory over a Penn State team that finishes the year 8-4 or 7-5 will carry significantly less weight than a win over a 10-2 Nittany Lion squad that sits at or near the top of the East division standings. Hawkeye fans may be best served by rooting for Clifford and the Nittany Lions to bounce back in a big way in the weeks to come; maybe Penn State can be the beneficiary of upset trend now that they are ranked outside of the top ten.

The Big Ten West was also not immune to the lack of predictability that has come to epitomize the 2021 college football season. Fresh off its stunning win over Iowa, Purdue imploded in the second half against Wisconsin en route to a 30-13 defeat which raises further questions about how the Hawkeyes managed to lose so decisively to a mediocre Boilermaker squad. Wisconsin, a team most analysts dismissed after its 1-3 start, seems to have found its footing again after rolling off three straight wins. Illinois, who had been in a steady downward spiral since its Week 0 win over Nebraska, proved it still had some fight in it with its history-making win over Penn State.

Perhaps most surprising is that the fate of the Big Ten West may come down to a battle between Iowa and Minnesota, a squad that lost its top two running backs to season-ending injuries and was beaten by a 2-6 Bowling Green team yet sits tied with the Hawkeyes at 3-1 in the division and could easily come into Iowa City with a 7-2 overall record in mid-November.

Despite Iowa’s loss to Purdue, the Hawkeyes are still in position to win the Big Ten West and compete for a conference title and bid to the College Football Playoff. However, Week 8 serves as another reminder as to why the Hawkeyes cannot afford to take any of their remaining opponents lightly lest they risk suffering the latest in a long string of stunning upsets. Iowa should be favored in each of their remaining games against its Big Ten West opponents, but the 2021 season has shown that the potential for disaster is hiding around every corner. If Iowa learns from its letdown loss to Purdue and proves that the real version of the Hawkeyes are the team fans saw through the first six games, Iowa should find itself with a clear path to Indianapolis.

However, if the Hawkeyes allow themselves to be caught sleepwalking through another game, Iowa fans may once again find themselves scratching their head at the end of the season and wondering how such a talented team found itself on the outside looking in during conference championship week.