Editor's Note: Pat will be back next week to tell you about things and whatnot; in the meantime, you get a substitute teacher again. -- Ross
October was a weird month. Iowa spent as many weeks on bye (two) as they did playing actual opponents. They've played one home game since September 13. Two bye weeks has stretched the season practically beyond recognition and eliminated any possible rhythm or flow that could have existed. Maybe that's a good thing, though -- Iowa's coming off the worst two-week stretch of the season, a parade of misery and discontent that began with an unsettling road loss to Maryland and ended in a flurry of player suspensions, defections, and injuries.
But November is an opportunity for a fresh start, of sorts. The stop-start nature of October is over, giving way to a steady flow of football over the next five weeks. And that's five weeks of football that could go very well for Iowa, rendering the tribulations of October a mere blip on the way to an ultimately satisfying season. Or these five weeks could go very badly for Iowa, turning the struggles of October into the first snowball in what ultimately becomes an avalanche burying the season.
The talking point for Iowa since 2013 ended has been Iowa's schedule in 2014, and in particular how easy it was. And, as it 's turned out, it was (and is) an easy schedule -- or at least an abundantly manageable schedule. Through seven games, these are the current Sagarin ratings of Iowa's opponents:
#106 Ball State
#61 Iowa State
And these are the current Sagarin ratings of Iowa's remaining five opponents:
Not exactly a Murderer's Row there. Wisconsin and Nebraska represent a step up in quality, but neither is so overwhelming a foe that envisioning an Iowa victory over them is an act of insanity.
The F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders paint a similar picture, for the most part:
#102 Ball State
#66 Iowa State
These are the current F/+ ratings of Iowa's remaining five opponents:
Northwestern and Minnesota rate out a little better (and Nebraska rates out quite a bit better) and Wisconsin rates out a little worse, but the interpretation of Iowa's schedule that was widely held in the summer appears to still be true today: it's soft. On the other hand, there's another factor to consider: how good is Iowa? The weakness of your schedule only matters if you're actually good enough to take advantage of said schedule. A 5-2 record says Iowa is at least pretty good; a deeper dive into the performances in those wins and losses (as well as a closer look at the teams Iowa was playing) casts some doubt on that notion. The most honest assessment might simply be that Iowa is a good team -- in fits and spurts. They're also occasionally a downright awful team in fits and spurts. And maybe that's what's so maddening about this team and this season -- we're seven games in, over halfway through the season, and we still don't really have a good sense of how good (or bad) this team truly is.
And so in that context maybe Northwestern is the perfect opponent for Iowa at this point, because Northwestern is effectively Iowa's purple-clad doppelganger this season. Inside NU pointed out the startling statistical similarities between Iowa and Northwestern earlier this week and the similarities hold true when you watch the teams play. Both teams struggle to make big plays on offense (Northwestern has 20 scrimmage plays of 20+ yards while Iowa has 19), have inconsistent quarterbacks, and struggle to run the ball. Both teams have good-but-not-great defenses that have been torched on occasion. Both teams are pretty lousy at punting. This game feels like both teams fighting themselves in the mirror. It's a pair of boxers with no hands wailing away on each other with their stumps.
In a game of so many similarities, and with familiarity breeding so much contempt, the winner seems likely to be the one that can best confound expectations. There isn't another pair of coaches in the Big Ten that are as familiar with one another as Ferentz and Fitzgerald; their teams have faced each other every year since 2006, the year Fitzgerald became the head coach at Northwestern. These teams each know what they like to do, what they're good at, and what they want to do.
For Iowa to beat Northwestern by doing the traditional things, the things they always try to do, they're probably going to have to do them better, more consistently, and over a longer period of time than they've generally shown the capacity to handle this year. That's not a reassuring thought. On the other hand, the last time Iowa came off a bye, they put together their most complete and electrifying quarter of offensive football of the season. Iowa went into that game with an aggressive gameplan and seemed determined to stretch the defense by getting the ball downfield more and putting the ball into the hands of potential difference-makers like Jonathan Parker, Damond Powell, and Tevaun Smith. To be sure, Indiana's defensive deficiencies were a contributing factor in Iowa's success that day, but the gameplan also worked. The Iowa offense hasn't looked that good before or since; was another bye week the tonic that it needed?
Because ultimately this game seems likely to come down to the same question we ask about Iowa almost every week: can the Iowa offense be effective? The defense has sprung a few more leaks this season (especially against the run), but I have confidence in their ability to have fixed those leaks, plugged those holes, and figured out how to tackle again over the last two weeks. Once again, it's about the offense: can they move the ball? Can they score touchdowns? Can they succeed against a defense that knows what they're going to do? The entire November schedule looms ahead for Iowa and make no mistake, it still represents a clear opportunity for Iowa, regardless of how much they've struggled so far this season. But that opportunity could be quickly dashed -- and November could quickly turn into a parade of horrors -- if Iowa hasn't absorbed the lessons of this season and devised solutions for the flaws we've seen for the last two months. November used to be when Iowa teams put it all together and evolved into their final forms; if they want to make a success out of this season, they'll need to do that again -- and soon.