No. 7 Iowa is still having a tough time convincing others of its status as an early contender for the national title.
Sure, the Hawkeyes (7-0, 3-0) are the only undefeated team in the Big Ten, and yes, Iowa has already beaten Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa State on the road.
But looking at the Top 25 poll and BCS standings shows that there’s still some doubts about the Hawkeyes.
Iowa has reached its highest spot in the Top 25 since 2002 and is sixth in the BCS standings. But the other unbeatens from BCS-affiliated conferences; Alabama, Florida, Texas and Cincinnati, are all ranked higher than the Hawkeyes in the Top 25 and the BCS.
So what does Iowa have to do to move up in terms of both national perception and in the rankings?
Coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t know – and he insists that he doesn’t particularly care either.
“It’s October 20th, so I’m not too worried about any of that stuff right now,” Ferentz said. “It’s pretty simple. When you win, you feel pretty good. When you don’t, you don’t feel so good. That’s good enough for us right now.”
The Hawkeyes will have another chance to prove themselves Saturday night when they play at Michigan State (4-3, 3-1), which has rebounded from a 1-3 start with three straight wins.
The Hawkeyes are a one-point favorite against Michigan State, yet another sign of the doubt many have about the Hawkeyes.
“The best way for us to get anywhere is just try to take care of this week, and that’s about all we can handle right now,” Ferentz said.
Perhaps the biggest reason Iowa is such a question mark is because of something Ferentz has never cared for: style points.
The Hawkeyes don’t have them – and neither does the Big Ten.
Iowa didn’t win many folks over with its narrow 17-16 escape over FCS school Northern Iowa in the opener.
Iowa used a 21-10 victory at Penn State to get back into the Top 25, but the Hawkeyes followed that up by struggling to put away Arkansas State and Michigan at home before winning at Wisconsin 20-10 last weekend.
Iowa’s winning formula, while far from flashy, has worked so far. The Hawkeyes rely on a stellar defense that takes opponents out of their comfort zone and forces turnovers – Iowa is fourth in the nation in turnover margin – and a balanced offense that uses the clock and limits game-changing mistakes as much as possible.
“We don’t really care how we win. I mean, a win is a win,” Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi said. “The style points and all that – we’re not exactly the flashiest ballclub. Everybody knows that, so we didn’t think we’d be winning any style points anyways.”
Iowa also isn’t helped by the Big Ten’s much-publicized slip in terms of national perception. The league’s reputation hasn’t exactly bounced back in 2009, and Michigan State is one of those teams that hasn’t lived up to expectations.
The Spartans were picked to finish third in the Big Ten before the season, but losses to Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin left them fighting just to get back above .500.
Michigan State has since bounced back with wins over Michigan, Illinois and Northwestern, though none of those were all that pretty either.
“We’ve sort of taken care of business, and been able to refocus and not fall apart,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Regardless of the situation or the game we’ve come to play every week. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but you got to show up with the right kind of attitude and I think our football team has done that.”
The BCS is also a hot topic in Iowa City these days because of Iowa’s schedule. After their matchup in East Lansing, the Hawkeyes have three home games against unranked foes – Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota – sandwiched around a road game with No. 18 Ohio State on Nov. 14.
If Iowa beats Michigan State, it’s possible to project the Hawkeyes as a team that will have a major say in the national title discussion.
That’s something Ferentz plans on leaving to others to talk about.
“Winning takes care of itself. It’s that simple,” Ferentz said. “Where we end up at the end of the year, that’s probably where we belong.”