Can Iowa jump from ‘America’s spoiler’ to College Football Playoff sleeper?

Hand Urban Meyer his lunch, folks in high places tend to perk up a little bit when your name gets called. The College Football Playoff tossed Iowa a bone Tuesday night, ranking the Hawkeyes No. 20 in the selection committee’s latest top 25 on the heels of a 55-24 thrashing of Ohio State, a Big Ten East curveball Aaron Judge wouldn’t swing at.

“I think it does wonders for our recruiting,” former Iowa fullback Lew Montgomery told Land of 10. “We had a lot of people here, prospects on campus. The question mark is, can we sustain it?”

And, yeah, well, so much for the honeymoon.

America’s spoilers are America’s darlings now — which means everybody sees ’em coming, especially the everybodies in Madison. Your newly ranked Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) visit No. 8 Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0) on Saturday in the Big Ten’s annual Crazy-8 school bus race: The last chassis upright wins, and whoever’s got the most teeth left at the end gets the honor of limping to the sideline and raising the Heartland Trophy to the heavens.

If the lead-up to this one seems more interesting than usual, it’s because: A) The Badgers are carrying the Big Ten’s CFP flag; and B) They’re carrying it because Iowa ripped the thing from the Buckeyes’ cold, dead hands and spent a chilly, beautiful afternoon bashing Ohio State over the head with it.

Which was fun as hell, but it also puts the Hawkeyes at another November fork in the road. Season-changing moment and sign of a program turning the corner? Or just one of those rare days when the stars and karma aligned to give Urban a giant wedgie on national television?

***

Unfortunately, precedent is also of two minds here, and middle ground is rare. The Badgers are great at home, yet they haven’t been great in Madison against Iowa, which has won two in a row on Monroe Street and four of its last five.

The Hawkeyes are 5-1 under coach Kirk Ferentz the contest immediately following a win over a top-10 Big Ten opponent. But only one of those foes in the game-after-that-landmark-victory was ranked, and that foe also happened to be the Hawkeyes’ only setback — a 19-10 defeat at then-No. 8 Ohio State in 2003, two weeks after a 30-27 home victory over then-No. 9 Michigan.

‘It’s kind of like, [we] won a game Saturday, but we’ve got a bigger hill to climb this week.’

— Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz

The Hawkeyes haven’t beaten AP top-10 opponents in consecutive games since 1958. Montgomery was toting the rock for the last Iowa squad to beat more than one Big Ten top-10 side in the same regular season — a 1990 squad that won at No. 10 Michigan on Oct. 20, 24-23, and later bashed No. 5 Illinois, 54-28, on Nov. 3 of that season en route to coach Hayden Fry’s final Rose Bowl berth.

“It’s funny, but it kind of felt like David and Goliath in a way,” Montgomery recalled. “We were a team that played with a lot of pride … from an execution perspective, we were sound.

“And if you rewind the clock a little bit, Saturday’s game was very reminiscent of what we did in 1990. You look at beating Illinois on the road and then going to a hostile environment like Michigan and winning on the road like that. Those were paramount wins for us.”

They weren’t flukes, either. Iowa running back Nick Bell was a second-round pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991; defensive back Merton Hanks made 108 NFL starts from 1991-99; defensive tackle Mike Wells made 63 starts in the league from 1994 to 2001. Wideout Danan Hughes was the Bo Jackson of the Big Ten, having been drafted into pro baseball by the Milwaukee Brewers and pro football by the Kansas City Chiefs, for whom he served as a return man and receiver from 1993-98.

“Really, it was more about unity. We really played with a lot of unity,” Montgomery said. “There was no selfishness in our huddle, and we just knew that we depended on each other and I think that’s really how we went out and approached every game and we took it one [game] at a time. ‘OK, we’ve got Michigan on the road in the Big House, OK, then, let’s do it.’

“We went out and executed. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a chip on our shoulder, it was just more that team we had had guts. We were tough, man. We had a lot of grit. And it really forced us into situations where we didn’t panic. It was like, ‘OK, we got this.’ We dialed up certain calls and certain plays and went out and got it done.”

***

November football’s a gas. Unless, of course, you’re the one charged with keeping your kids’ feet on the ground and their noses in the playbook while the talking heads are throwing beads at them like it’s 2 a.m. on Bourbon Street.

“You know, maybe I’m an optimist, but I’ve always believed in our people and the people we have on the field right now, the people coaching them and what we’re asking them to do,” Ferentz told reporters on Tuesday. “I believe in that. There’s no guarantee it ever is going to push through, or you’re going to get up over the hill. And then once you do, there might be a bigger hill. It’s kind of like, [we] won a game  Saturday, but we’ve got a bigger hill to climb this week.”

Last November, America’s spoilers bounced from a 14-13 win over No. 2 Michigan with a date at Illinois, the Big Ten West’s reigning piñata. Mad City is a different prospect entirely, the division’s ultimate test of your collective manhood. After Ohio State, it figures to be a test of a team’s maturity, too.

“Is this a one-game wonder?” Montgomery continued. “Coach Ferentz says we’ve got to win out. It’s as simple as that. I think if you put that kind of strategy going into Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, it’s going to be a little bit of a different environment. You’re playing on the road, you’re playing against an undefeated Wisconsin team that’s got great tailbacks and has got a big offensive line — it’s kind of the mirror image of Iowa.

“So I think, athletically, Saturday’s game, we didn’t have the athletes, per se, that Ohio State had, but our strategy was just impeccable in terms of how they played and prepared. And you could obviously see the difference in their preparations and how they approached this game.”

‘I think that’s been the over-arching mystery behind this squad … which team is going to show up?’

— Former Iowa fullback Lew Montgomery

And it’s not like the ranking wasn’t earned: The Hawkeyes’ three losses were all to teams that have already clinched bowl eligibility. Mind you, two came on the road, where Iowa has so far bowed to its most tentative, conservative impulses, like a European soccer team playing for points in a nil-nil draw away from the comforts of home.

In hindsight, a 17-10 setback at No. 12 Michigan State (7-2) and a 17-10 overtime loss at No. 25 Northwestern (6-3) look somewhat less damning in the long view, but a trip to Camp Randall is going to require a lot more of the Buckeyes version of Hawkeyes and a hell of a lot less of the Evanston one. Snow or no snow.

“A lot of people will say that, ‘You know, in November, Iowa really is the spoiler, they’re always going to be a trap game,’ ” Montgomery said. “At least two years, consecutively, it’s been that trap game and we’ve been able to spoil the hopes of two really good programs [Michigan in 2016; Ohio State last weekend] and I think on a national level, Iowa has that capability.

“And it just depends on which team really shows up. A lot of it really depends on the level of our competition. We’ll look very different against Purdue than we did against Ohio State. And that’s the mystery. It’s that you go up against a team that you’re supposed to beat by 31 points, like a Minnesota, and you don’t do it. And then you go against Ohio State, which is a top-ranked team, and you look like a completely different program.

“So I think that’s been the over-arching mystery behind this squad. It’s really: Which team is going to show up?”

The Hawkeyes who huffed and puffed at home against 4-5 Minnesota? Or the crisp, confident behemoth that just cracked Urban Meyer’s walnuts?

“I think Iowa has an opportunity this weekend to really put a footprint on its season,” Montgomery said. “Let’s say we go out and beat them. I think on a national level, a lot of people are going to have to say, ‘OK, hold on, this Iowa team that we didn’t give a whole lot of credit to is the real deal.’

“You look at how well we played against Penn State [a 21-19 home loss], it came down to the last play of the game. So I think the team’s character, it’s there. It’s just a matter of us finally jelling, finally putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. And what a great weekend to do it.”

The post Can Iowa jump from ‘America’s spoiler’ to College Football Playoff sleeper? appeared first on Land of 10.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X