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Best of the West, or Best of the Rest?

In a year when the gap between the Big Ten East and West is bigger than it has been in quite some time, being good may just be good enough to get Iowa to Indy.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a famous quote in soccer that says that “to win you have to score one more goal than your opponent.” Kirk Ferentz may not have watched a single soccer game in his entire life, but this quote has embodied the philosophy of his team this season. Iowa may be the least watchable football team in America, but they have proved shockingly effective at scoring just slightly more points than their opponents, even though that number is often far lower than fans would like.

The Hawkeyes had to scratch and claw for every yard and every point in their ugly 15-6 win over Wisconsin, but this victory gave Iowa control of its own destiny in the Big Ten West and gave the Hawkeyes a clear path to the Big Ten Championship, even if most college football fans would rather watch almost any team play on the conference’s biggest stage.

True to form, Iowa’s defense and special teams have carried the load for the Hawkeyes this season. Iowa’s defense is ranked as the best in the country according to ESPN’s S&P+ metric and is tenth in the country in scoring defense, holding opponents to only 14.9 points per game. Cooper DeJean has established himself as arguably the country’s most dynamic cornerback, Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson are one of the Big Ten’s best linebacking duos, Sebastian Castro is as versatile a defensive player as anyone in college football, and the Hawkeye defensive line is finally beginning to play up to its potential.

Meanwhile, Tory Taylor continues to look like Reggie Roby reincarnated, flipping the field and pinning Iowa’s opponents deep in their own territory. Taylor easily leads the Big Ten in yards per punt with 48, while DeJean’s exceptional punt return skills and Drew Steven’s strong kicking leg give Iowa one of the sport’s most well-rounded special teams units.

The Hawkeye offense remains the same dumpster fire it has been for the past three seasons but has finally started to show growth in the running game. Two separate Hawkeyes have rushed for over 100 yards over the past two weeks, with Kaleb Johnson looking like his old self against Purdue and Leshon Williams having the game of his life with a 174-yard, one touchdown performance against Wisconsin.

Iowa’s much-maligned offensive line has also made strides as the season has progressed, with the trio of Rusty Feth, Connor Colby, and Logan Jones throwing timely blocks throughout the Heartland Trophy game. Wisconsin knew Iowa wanted to run the ball and sold out to stop it, a recipe that has typically led to Iowa’s running game faltering in recent years. Against the Badgers, however, Iowa managed to impose its will on the ground at a time when its passing game was as bad as ever, mustering fewer yards through the air than any win in the Kirk Ferentz era (37).

Iowa’s passing game is not likely to improve much before the year ends. Deacon Hill remains as inaccurate as ever and has yet to establish real chemistry with his wide receivers, none of whom have reached 100 yards on the season through seven games. Meanwhile, Erick All’s injury leaves the Hawkeyes with a critical lack of reliable receiving targets. While it is unclear how long All will be out, any injury that requires a cart to get to the locker room is likely to keep the player in question out for several weeks at the very least. Unless Hill becomes dramatically more efficient or Kaleb Brown finally finds a way to make an impact, the absence of All means Iowa’s passing game is just as likely to get worse before it gets better, if such a thing is even possible. For Iowa to have any chance at scoring points over the next several games, its running game will have to prove it can produce against stacked boxes the way it did against Wisconsin.

Fortunately for Iowa, it’s competition is not likely to get more difficult than what it faced in Madison on Saturday. In the Big Ten West’s final season, the division may be the worst it has ever been. Iowa and Wisconsin are the only two teams with winning records, and the three .500 teams (Minnesota, Nebraska, and Northwestern) all have warts as significant as Iowa’s in addition to having losing records in the conference. Northwestern may have the lowest level of roster talent in the conference and an offense nearly as bad as Iowa’s, while Nebraska still has not overcome its propensity for losing close/big games, as evidenced by their 13-10 loss to Minnesota in their opener and 45-7 shellacking against Michigan.

Meanwhile, Minnesota blew a 31-10 lead to Northwestern and gave up 52 points in their most recent game. Illinois may have posted the division’s most impressive win this season in their victory over Maryland on Saturday, but their decisive losses to Purdue and Nebraska hardly cast them as much of a threat to challenge Iowa in the West. Iowa’s toughest remaining game this season may be against Rutgers, a team that has a defense near Iowa’s caliber and a running game strong enough to test the Hawkeyes’ front seven. Even then, Iowa gets the Scarlet Knights at home, and Rutgers’ lack of success in recent history could very well signal that their program has already peaked this season.

Iowa’s inability to score points and tendency to play close, ugly games will make it difficult for the Hawkeyes to win the rest of their remaining games. However, Iowa’s win over Wisconsin gives it the tiebreaker over the team most likely to challenge it for the conference crown, and the Badgers should take another loss when they play Ohio State later this season. If Iowa can avoid losing two of their final five games, they will likely earn a trip the conference championship. The Hawkeyes may not be a great team, but they only have to be better than their opponents to win the West. In a year when the gap between the Big Ten East and West is bigger than it has been in quite some time, being good may just be good enough to get Iowa to Indy.