Will Iowa Win the Big Ten?

EVANSTON, IL - OCTOBER 17: Akrum Wadley #25 of the Iowa Hawkeyes rushes against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second quarter at Ryan Field on October 17, 2015 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

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Now that the college football season is more than half over, the field has begun to separate the contenders and the pretenders. One team, the Iowa Hawkeyes, has been a bit of a surprise so far. Coming from the Big Ten, Iowa has never been a pushover, but as of the past three or four years, the Hawkeyes haven’t been as dominant as they once were. And entering this season, they weren’t expected to shock the Big Ten, either.

But that’s just what they’ve done so far. With a 7-0 record, No. 12 Iowa currently sits atop the Big Ten West. As of late, the division has been dominated by Wisconsin; even this season, despite a new coach, it seemed likely the Badgers would continue said domination. However, the Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin in an early season matchup, and this victory ultimately laid the groundwork for Iowa’s future success.

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Despite their current success, the question still remains whether or not they’re actually good enough to be more than just the best team in the lesser of two Big Ten divisions. Though they have five games remaining and two on the road — against Indiana and Nebraska, which normally would be a difficult victory — Iowa’s remaining schedule bodes well for the chance of an undefeated season. Unfortunately, even if everything goes right and the Hawkeyes do win out, they’ll face one of the nation’s best teams, no matter who comes out of the East in the Big Ten Championship game.

Now, considering where Iowa was a year ago and the personnel they had returning, Kirk Ferentz and Iowa have surprised some people this season. Whether it’s been the offensive success, which was anything but proven, and the defense’s ability to shut people down, Iowa hasn’t looked weak in its victories. The defense, for example, held then-No. 19 Wisconsin to just six points on the road, and last weekend No. 20 Northwestern to 20 points. But playing well is a far leap from being a Big Ten title contender. The Hawkeyes will need to continue their upward trend and also play even better down the road.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 05:  A fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes tailgates in the parking lot prior to Iowa playing against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during the FedEx Orange Bowl at Land Shark Stadium on January 5, 2010 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Though the team’s ultimate success will live and die with the defense, quarterback C.J. Beathard will need to continue to power the offense. The running game’s also performed exceedingly well, but after star running back Jordan Canzeri went down in last week’s game against Northwestern, the ground game’s future looked meek. Backup Akrum Wadley filled in nicely, though, finishing the game in Canzeri’s absence with 204 yards and four touchdowns.

Whatever way you spin it, Beathard has been more than promising in his first full season as the starting quarterback, and the offense has consequently thrived. The Hawkeyes have a prototypical big, burly offensive line that has powered their running game in the past, and the combination of a successful aerial attack with an athletic running back has translated into wins. While the wide receiving corps leaves something to be desired — minus junior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg with 41 receptions and 391 receiving yards on the year — the offense thrives on just enough passing to keep the opposing defenses out of the box.

Barring a collapse of epic proportion, since Iowa has beaten Wisconsin and thus would own the tiebreaker, all the Hawkeyes have to do is win four of their last five (yes, much more difficult than it sounds in a conference as good as the Big Ten) to ensure a spot in the Big Ten Championship game. However, that’s when Iowa’s biggest hurdle will arise. To win the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes at some point will have to defeat either Ohio State or Michigan State — presently, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 7 teams, respectively.

Regardless of whether or not Iowa is good enough to top the likes of the Buckeyes or Spartans, if the Hawkeyes make it far enough for Big Ten contention, they’ll likely be in the playoff debate. And with that, they’ll need to be competing at a whole different level. But the multi-faceted offensive attack coupled with a stingy defense has brought Iowa this far, and as evidenced by its success against the best the Big Ten West has to offer, the Hawkeyes aren’t yet done making noise.