Last year, on November 8th, the entire country cheered as one for a teams few new anything about. Gators, Sooners, and Trojans fans alike united together to cheer for the 5-4 Iowa Hawkeyes, who were a field goal away from upsetting the third-ranked team in the country, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Granted, the cheering was more against Penn State than it was for Iowa, as the game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights, Happy Valley cried, and the rest of the country rejoyced.
Why? It was just an upset. But to college football fans across America it was much more. It wasn't just an upset, it meant that a Big Ten team would not play for the National Championship.
As any college football fan knows, fans outside of the Midwest aren't too fond of the Big Ten, seeing it as an inferior conference, although, in reality, it is far superior to the ACC and Big East. An argument could even be made that the Big Ten is even to the Pac-10, minus USC.
And to the dread of the rest of the college football world, it looks as though the Big Ten may have another National Championship contender in 2009. But this year, it's the team they all cheered for last season, the Iowa Hawkeyes.
After hitting a lull from 2005-2007, Kirk Ferentz has the Hawkeyes back on the right track. At nine games, they currently hold the country's longest winning streak (behind Florida), and carry a lot of momentum with that streak. The streak also includes wins over No. 3 and No. 5 Penn State and a huge win over South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
The driving force behind those wins, an elite and hard-hitting defense. The offense hasn't been spectacular, but it has done enough to win, helping Iowa end last season 4-0 and start this season with a 5-0 mark.
The formula is pretty simple: Play physical defense, don't let the ball cross the goal line, and wait for something to open up on offense. It isn't flashy, and while the Hawkeyes don't blow away their opponents, they win, and that's all that counts.
But how does that translate into a National Championship? After all, most National Championship teams have flashy, high-powered, complicated offenses. Well, let's examine the Penn State game.
After giving up a touchdown on Penn State's first drive, the Iowa defense stuffed the Lions in their tracks. They trailed 10-5 heading into the fourth quarter and waited for Penn State to make their mistake, that mistake being a blocked punt that Adrian Clayborn returned for a touchdown. As most fans know, Iowa went on to win 21-10.
The Hawkeye defense was phenomenal. Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark was pressured all day and threw three interceptions in one of the worst games of his career. Star running back Evan Royster was shut down by Iowa's physical defensive line and also lost a fumble that ultimately ended the Nittany Lions' chance for a comeback.
And while the Iowa offense didn't mess up horribly, minus two very unlucky interceptions by quarterback Ricky Stanzi, it wasn't spectacular by any means. And it proved that if the offense does just enough, the defense can win every game on on the Hawkeyes' schedule this year.
It would be nice if the offense offered some help every once in a while, and if they start rolling watch out. Ricky Stanzi has shown signs of life recently and it looks as though the offense may be getting back on track. But even if they don't Iowa can go undefeated relying only on their defense.
And while an undefeated season doesn't necessarily guarantee a National Championship appearance, the Hawkeyes certainly will have earned it. Unlike Penn State last year, the schedule is brutal. Home games against Arizona and Michigan aren't gimmes, and road trips to Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State make for a very tough schedule. But with two of those games down and two wins, Iowa looks like a serious contender.
But even with a 5-0 record and win over Penn State in Happy Valley under its belt, Iowa isn't taking anything for granted. They realize the obstacles that they still face in order to reach a National Championship.
But if the last five games have been any indication, the Hawkeyes will keep on winning, one block, hit, sack, and interception at a time.