As the air turns cold and snow threatens to sweep across the plains, it sneaks up on us faster than a well-placed Halloween spook—the 2011 football season is more than half over.
With seven games behind them, the Iowa Hawkeyes face just five more before their postseason fate is revealed and they either begin preparations for a bowl game, or close the book on another year and pack it in for the winter.
Many fans (myself included) may have had somewhat different expectations than what has panned out so far this year. Losing to Iowa State is never a fun event for Hawkeye fans and getting beat by a team Iowa has owned over the last 10 years (Penn State) rarely inspires a wealth of enthusiasm.
Still, staging an historic comeback victory over Pitt was thrilling and finally getting past Northwestern was a bonus many didn't expect at the beginning of the year. Plus, finding out that Iowa can run a no-huddle offense with the best of them has added a level of intrigue to the campaign.
The Hawkeyes are 5-2 and just one game away from bowl eligibility. It would be difficult for even the staunchest critic to find much fault with the way things have gone considering the major amount of turnover Iowa suffered.
Having said all of that, there's no doubt that there's still a lot to work out. The defense is far inferior to what we had hoped. The offense has been a real strength of the team, but it was also shut down against Penn State and has had difficulties at times finding the right combinations and rhythms to succeed.
So, now that we know what we're dealing with, what should we expect from the final stretch of the 2011 regular season and what kind of postseason can Iowa look forward to?
The good times should keep on rollin' this weekend as Iowa travels to TCF Bank Stadium to take on the Golden Gophers. Of course, I may have just jinxed the Hawkeyes by so confidently making such a statement.
After all, last year, Iowa had a far superior team to the one fielded this season and the Hawkeyes found a way to lose to team that finished just 3-9. Nothing should ever be taken for granted.
I don't think that will be the case this year, though. There are a lot of differences between these two teams and the situation they find themselves in.
Iowa's offense has looked very good and fairly balanced against teams with weak defenses. They don't get much weaker than what Minnesota brings to the table this weekend. The Gopher scoring defense ranks dead last in the conference, and is at least as bad as Northwestern's was.
If you think that merely means that Iowa stands a chance of winning a shootout, think again. The Gophers also have the worst rated offense in the conference.
Iowa's defense hasn't been great, but it's not completely horrible. It has showed flashes of brilliance at times and should have its best day against a hapless Gopher offense.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's squad is that this year's crew has no delusions of grandeur. They know they're not great. They haven't had a ton of praise heaped on them and they don't have anyone in particular standing out as an obvious first round draft pick.
In a nutshell, this team knows it can't afford to take anyone lightly. They know they're walking the razor's edge between success and failure every time they take the field. They're not likely to lay down on this one.
While it's never good to get too confident in a Hawkeye victory, I think it's fairly safe to say that Iowa will come away from this game with Floyd of Rosedale in toe and earn their bowl eligibility.
This is where things start to get interesting—and more than a little scary.
Iowa has beaten Michigan the last two times they've played, but those were under the Rich Rodriguez regime. While the Wolverine offense has been consistently able to put points on the board against Iowa, their defense has been unable to consistently do anything to stop Iowa in return.
This year, Brady Hoke has come to town and brought Greg Mattison with him. Mattison's defense has been considerably better than the ones Michigan fielded before he came along. Meanwhile, the Wolverine offense hasn't suffered much during the transition from Rodriguez to Hoke.
Consider also that those performances came against some pretty tough Hawkeye defenses.
Michigan is averaging 34.6 points per game and roughly 428 yards per contest. However, when confronted with Michigan State's daunting defense, the Wolverines were held to just 14 points and 250 total yards.
In other words, they're great against mediocre defenses. Unfortunately, Iowa's defense falls into that category.
On top of all of that, Michigan's defense averages only 14.7 points allowed per game. Notre Dame, Northwestern and Michigan State all blew that number out of the water, however. So, there's reason to believe that the Hawkeye offense will be able to put up some points against Michigan.
The big question is, will they be able to put up enough to out-score the Wolverines? Can they pull off another shootout victory over Michigan?
Iowa has struggled against dual threat quarterbacks. Iowa State's Steele Jantz ran for 42 yards and threw for 279 more with four touchdowns. If Iowa couldn't contain him, how will they handle Denard Robinson?
This has been a season of reversals for Iowa. They lost to Iowa State and Penn State, but beat Northwestern. Count on another reversal as Michigan takes down Iowa in Kinnick.
Projected Record: 6-3
Last year, Michigan State had a perfect record going and was looking like they could potentially be one of the best teams in the nation. They had defeated Wisconsin in a thriller just a few weeks before Iowa decimated the Spartans 37-6.
That game was inexplicable on a number of levels—at least as far as the pundits were concerned. Iowa was a good team, but they weren't that good. Michigan State was the better team, and yet they weren't.
Could this year's rendition turn out similar?
Iowa has a good team, but not that good. Michigan State is the better team, but will they play like they're the better team?
Things are looking eerily similar. Michigan State isn't undefeated, but they're close with only one loss. They're climbing their way up the standings and have just beaten Wisconsin in another thriller.
So, maybe we could expect a repeat of last year's dominant performance?
Don't count on it.
You can guarantee one thing: the Spartans won't take Iowa lightly. They'll be plenty motivated to grab a little revenge for last year's embarrassment.
More importantly though, the Spartan defense is very, very good—particularly against the pass. Iowa's offense struggled mightily against Penn State's tough pass defense, but that may have been nothing compared to Michigan State's.
Meanwhile, Iowa's defense will have to become much, much better if it's going to stop Kirk Cousins, Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell.
Realistically, Iowa is looking at its second consecutive loss inside Kinnick when the Spartans are done with them.
Projected Record: 6-4
On the surface, this should be an automatic win. The Boilermakers are barely above .500 at 4-3, though their conference record (2-1) is identical to Iowa's.
Dig a little deeper though and you'll see that they fared better against Penn State than Iowa did. The Boilermakers lost, but by a score of 23-18, not 13-3. You'll also see that their loss at Rice was by a mere two points.
Of course, you'll also notice that they upended Illinois 21-14.
Purdue is a team that's slowly putting some things together. They average over 195 yards per game on the ground and 28.9 points per game. Their offense isn't having any troubles worth noting.
Much like Iowa, however, their defense has been hit-or-miss and mostly miss. They had a great stand early against Illinois, but were burned pretty badly by Notre Dame (551 yards of total offense) and allowed Middle Tennessee State to put up almost six yards per play.
While Iowa shouldn't be blanked by the Boilermakers, they likely won't shut them down either. This could be a case of who can score more quickly and whose defense can do enough to hang on. Whoever holds the ball last may hold the edge on the scoreboard at the end.
That this is on the road doesn't bode well for Iowa. While it's a toss-up, I'm compelled to err on the side of caution and say Purdue can absolutely take this game from the Hawks.
Projected Record: 6-5
Now this game could be really interesting.
To the casual observer, this one should be in the bag for Nebraska. They're a ranked team who has beaten Ohio State and everyone else not named Wisconsin so far. They have a dangerous offense and a defense that's at least good enough to keep them in most games.
However, this is also a team that just might match up nicely for Iowa.
Nebraska's pass defense isn't great. It's not the worst defense in the conference, but they are in the lower half and allow over 190 yards per game through the air. They also haven't faced a passing offense quite like Iowa's.
Their offense is good, which is bad news for Iowa's defense—especially if Taylor Martinez starts running around a lot. They're practically guaranteed to put up a ton yards and more than a few points on Iowa's defense.
However, Nebraska's offense is also somewhat inconsistent. In a close game with a lot of yards getting chewed up, it only takes a blink for one team or the other to grab a clear advantage.
That's not to say that it would be that simple for Iowa to win. Nebraska's offense has been fairly impressive. However, other than Ohio State and Wisconsin, they haven't really played anyone yet to get a really clear picture of just how good they are.
We'll know a lot more after they play Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State.
Still, there's a more realistic chance of a Hawkeye victory than many might think. The strengths match up nicely against weaknesses to believe this really could be anyone's game.
Between this game and the Purdue game, Iowa will win one. It's unthinkable that they'll end the season on a four game skid.
Projected Record: 7-5
Iowa should be bowling this year. Where though?
That's really tough to project right now. It's not just a matter of figuring out Iowa's record and then trying to place them within the conference.
Remember that bowl games don't have to take the "next in line" when choosing the teams they want. When you see "Big Ten No. 5" on a bowl schedule, it doesn't necessarily mean the fifth best team in the conference. It means that bowl has the fifth pick of available teams.
The rules state that a bowl can take any eligible team as long as that teams doesn't possess more than one fewer win or one more loss than a team higher in the conference standings.
In other words, if Iowa has a 7-5 record and Illinois has an 8-4 record, any bowl can pick Iowa over Illinois. However, they cannot take Iowa over 9-3 Nebraska. Nor can they take any 6-6 team over a 7-5 team (the exception to the +/- 2 rule.)
Expect this much though; at 7-5 Iowa isn't likely to be bowling in January. There may be a 7-5 Big Ten team playing on January 2, 2012, but it won't be Iowa. They haven't been impressive enough at any particular point this season for bowl reps to think they'll get a big television audience.
Plus, the end of the regular season could be really ugly for the Hawks, who face three ranked teams in their final four games. As good as Iowa travels to bowl games, that draw didn't help them so much last year and I wouldn't expect it to aid them much this year either.
The fact is, television money is starting to talk louder than ticket/tourism money and Iowa doesn't get as big a television audience as several other Big Ten teams.
Iowa will have a successful season. On that, I feel relatively confident. The final stretch could be pretty rough though, and Hawk fans may feel a little as though their team has fallen into a funk.
Take heart. Things could be worse and the future is looking pretty bright.