Saturday October 17th, 2015

Iowa entered this season amid questions about whether the program had grown stale. Coach Kirk Ferentz appeared on hot seat lists, and there were plenty of jokes about his massive contract buyout.

It’s taken the Hawkeyes just seven weeks to turn that negative narrative completely on its head. Iowa thrashed Northwestern 40–10 on Saturday in Evanston to move to 7–0 on the season and 3–0 in the Big Ten. This marks the first time the Hawkeyes have opened 7–0 since 2009.

Iowa’s offensive line dominated up front Saturday, paving the way for 294 yards and five touchdowns on the ground even though top tailback Jordan Canzeri left early with an injury. With Canzeri sidelined, sophomore Akrum Wadley delivered 204 yards on 26 carries. Meanwhile, Iowa’s defense harassed Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson and limited the Wildcats to only 51 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per play.

This game erased any doubt over who resides atop the Big Ten West pecking order. The Hawkeyes had already notched wins over division foes Illinois and Wisconsin. On Saturday, they trounced their only other ostensible challenger in the West. That the Wildcats were obliterated at Michigan last week removes some luster from Iowa’s win, but it does not diminish its importance to the standings.

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Nearly unthinkable before the season, it is no longer unreasonable to suggest that Iowa could run the table. It should be favored in every game remaining on its schedule: Maryland (Oct. 31), at Indiana (Nov. 7), Minnesota (Nov. 14), Purdue (Nov. 21) and at Nebraska (Nov. 27). If the Hawkeyes keep applying the formula they’ve used to reach this point—stifling rushing defense and an efficient, turnover-averse offense—they can win all of those.

Whether Iowa can handle the rising expectations to pull that off remains to be seen. But the fact that an undefeated campaign is on the table is remarkable considering the Hawkeyes received zero conference championship votes and were picked to finish fourth—behind Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota—in their own division by a Big Ten media panel in the preseason. Iowa’s success is so shocking that parents may need some help explaining it to their children.

As for Northwestern, this is the second consecutive week in which it was outclassed by its opponent. Yet while the Wildcats could take comfort last week in the fact that the Wolverines are a part of the Big Ten East and might well be the best team in the conference, Saturday’s loss puts a huge dent in Northwestern’s chances of reaching the conference championship game. The Wildcats had a chance to bounce back, to provide evidence that the Michigan loss could be filed away as one bad day. Instead, they got blown out again.

The two defeats leave the Wildcats scrambling to rediscover what powered their 5–0 start and rise to No. 13 in the polls. They also support the notion that Northwestern’s Sept. 5 win over Stanford is one of the wackiest results we’ll see all season.

The Wildcats can rebound against a manageable schedule—at Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue, at Wisconsin, Illinois—but after Saturday, it’s clear Iowa has the inside track to reach Indianapolis. And while the Big Ten East champion is likely to be a College Football Playoff contender as well, the idea of needing only one more win over a ranked opponent to make the four-team field is hardly daunting. The Hawkeyes can’t be dismissed.

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