What a time to be an Iowa football fan. After capturing the attention of the college football world with their Friday night humiliation of Maryland, the Hawkeyes will have an opportunity to show their mettle and solidify their place in the playoff conversation by securing their first home win against Penn State since 2010 in a matchup between two Top Five teams.
With Iowa only five weeks into its 2021 season, it seems far too early to write a column dedicated to breaking down the team’s path to a conference championship and a playoff berth. Yet it is entirely appropriate; for the first time since 2015, the Hawkeyes not only find themselves in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten West but are laying the groundwork for what could become a compelling case for inclusion in the College Football Playoff. A LOT can happen over Iowa’s next seven (hopefully eight) games, especially in a sport as prone to injuries and earth-shattering upsets as college football. Still, with Iowa playing like one of the best teams in the sport, it’s worth indulging a few fantasies about what might be possible should the Hawkeyes find a way to continue their winning ways.
Iowa has shown all the makings of a team capable of winning the Big Ten West. The Hawkeyes boast one of the country’s best defenses and an offense that, while certainly having room to grow, has proven exceptional at managing the game and capitalizing on the opportunities afforded to it by the defense and special teams. While Iowa has yet to play an opponent from the West division, the ease with which it dispatched of two competent teams from the East gives reason for optimism about how Iowa might navigate the rest of its conference schedule.
No Big Ten West teams appear capable of posing a legitimate challenge to the Hawkeyes through five games. Wisconsin and Northwestern, the two programs that have derailed Iowa’s division championship hopes in recent years, are both 0-2 in conference play and are playing nowhere near the levels of the championship teams that came before them. Illinois is 2-4 and lightyears away from being competitive, and while 3-3 Nebraska has looked frisky the past few weeks and is finally showing signs of defensive competency, the Huskers are 0-2 in conference play with a loss to the aforementioned Fighting Illini. Purdue has a history of punching above its weight against the Hawkeyes, but their loss to Minnesota this week puts them a game behind the Hawkeyes with road games at Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio State remaining. Minnesota, meanwhile, has already lost one conference game, is without its best player for the rest of the season, and lost to Bowling Green in the worst upset by a Big Ten team since Appalachian State toppled Michigan in 2007. Any Big Ten West team hoping to wrestle the division away from the Hawkeyes will have to improve dramatically in a very short amount of time or hope for Iowa’s play to take a serious step back.
Should Iowa manage to win the West, they will likely have to go through one of four teams to secure the conference crown: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, or Michigan State. The Hawkeyes will get a sense of how they match up against the Nittany Lions next Sunday, but it’s too early to say how Iowa might fare against the other three teams. The 2021 Michigan State squad is far superior to the hapless club that fell to the Hawkeyes 49-7 last year, but it still has to prove it can hang with the top teams in the conference. Michigan is a talented team that plays with impressive physicality on both sides of the ball, but its offense remains one-dimensional and would likely struggle against a defense like Iowa’s that could take away the run without leaving itself completely vulnerable to being beaten over the top. Ohio State remains the conference’s most talented team, but the Buckeyes have shown serious defensive vulnerabilities and are not the same unstoppable force that has rolled through the conference the past four seasons. Were the Big Ten Championship played today, there is no reason to expect that Iowa could not compete with and potentially defeat any team in the Big Ten East.
Iowa has a long way to go before it can afford to start worrying about winning the conference and even farther before the playoffs can become a topic of conversation within the locker room. However, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the Hawkeyes might be able to play their way into the College Football Playoff if they continue to improve as the season progresses.
The Hawkeyes would almost certainly need to finish the year 13-0 or as 12-1 Big Ten Champions to warrant consideration for the playoff, and even the latter scenario does not guarantee that they would be selected. SEC powerhouses Alabama and Georgia appear to be in a class of their own so far this season, and should they meet as undefeated opponents in the SEC Championship, the playoff committee may find it difficult to leave either team out barring a complete blowout in the title game. The undefeated Oklahoma Sooners are one of several Big 12 teams that could make a case by running the table en route to a conference title. Oregon’s playoff resume was hurt by its loss to Stanford this week, but the Ducks could still ride their road win over Ohio State to a playoff berth if they win out. If the college football gods are really feeling crazy, an undefeated Wake Forest could emerge from the ACC boasting signature wins over Clemson, UNC, and NC State. Finally, an undefeated Cincinnati might have the strongest case of any Group of Five team in history for playoff inclusion after road wins over Notre Dame and Indiana, and wouldn’t it be the most Iowa thing ever for the Hawkeyes to finish as the 12-1 Big Ten Champions only to be passed over by a team from the AAC?
The 2021 college football season is less than half over, so it is difficult to put too much stock in any hypothetical playoff scenarios with so many games left to be played. Yet with the Hawkeyes in control of their own destiny, Iowa fans can be forgiven if they find themselves cheering for the rest of the Big Ten West to cannibalize itself and for teams like Georgia and Oklahoma to suffer unexpected losses. Iowa fans hoping to boost their team’s playoff resume may even find themselves doing something they never thought possible: rooting for Iowa State to win the Big 12. The Hawkeyes’ postseason dreams could easily be scuttled by only one or two losses, and the past sixty years of Iowa football give Iowa fans plenty of reasons to expect things to go sideways for the program sooner or later. Still, with the Hawkeyes ranked in the Top Five and facing a chance to solidify their national credibility, the Iowa faithful can be forgiven for believing this team might be capable of reaching new heights. To compete for championships, Iowa simply has to do keep doing what it’s done for the past eleven games: just win, baby.