IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – Iowa is a long, long way from the beginning of the season, when the Hawkeyes were a national afterthought and the job security of coach Kirk Ferentz was the subject of widespread speculation.
Look at the Hawkeyes now.
Iowa, which moved up to 10th in this week’s poll after a bye week, is 7-0 and 3-0 in the Big Ten ahead of Saturday’s home game against Maryland (2-5, 0-3).
A 12-0 regular season suddenly looks possible for these improbable Hawkeyes, whose final five games are against teams that are a combined 2-14 in Big Ten play.
A Big Ten title game would be on deck if Iowa runs the table, and the opponent there could be defending national champion Ohio State or perhaps Michigan State.
Forget all that for now, players say. They insist they’re heeding the advice of Ferentz, whose coaching staff gave the team an illustration of all the recent upsets in college football as a reminder to remain focused.
"You can’t let that stuff get to your head," quarterback C.J. Beathard said. "Before the season started, people were saying the opposite, and now they’re all of a sudden thinking we should go undefeated and all that stuff. Who knows what they know? They don’t know much, and we know that."
Indeed, seven wins looked like the ceiling back in August for a team that went 7-6 in 2014. But the Hawkeyes have already matched last year’s win total – and they finish the season playing teams simply hoping to become bowl eligible.
That’s a big contrast to the first two months, when Iowa beat West rivals Wisconsin and Northwestern on the road. The Hawkeyes also survived their typically tricky visit to Iowa State, 31-17, and held off No. 23 Pitt last month at home by three points.
Maryland, on the other hand, has lost four in a row and recently fired coach Randy Edsall. Iowa then plays at Indiana, which is currently 0-4 in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes will host Minnesota (4-3, 1-2) at home on Nov. 14. Iowa closes out its home schedule with Purdue (1-6, 0-3), followed by a trip to Nebraska (3-5, 1-3), which has been a huge disappointment so far.
Iowa’s players acknowledged hearing all the nice things that were said about the Hawkeyes during the bye week, but they’re doing their best to block it all out.
"It’s hard. But I try not to let my thoughts get too global," running back Akrum Wadley said. "I try not to think about the big picture."
Still, there are plenty of Hawkeyes fans who can’t help but start thinking about how special this season might be.
Iowa last made a national title push in 2009. Had star quarterback Ricky Stanzi not sprained his ankle in a week 10 loss to Northwestern, that team might have gone 12-0.
The Hawkeyes went 11-1 and reached the Orange Bowl in 2002, but a loss to Iowa State in the third game kept them largely out of the title picture. In 1985, the Hawkeyes spent a month at No. 1 before losing at Ohio State and in the Rose Bowl to UCLA.
This year’s team has a chance to top all those memorable seasons – but the talk can wait for the Hawkeyes.
"To worry about those things is really kind of silly. You get defined by what you do on the field," Ferentz said.
Facing a ranked opponent for the third time in four weeks following losses to Michigan and Ohio State to open October, Maryland will also be playing its second game under interim coach Mike Locksley.
The Terps need to avoid the bevy of mistakes they made in last Saturday’s 31-30 loss to Penn State. Quarterback Perry Hills pierced the Nittany Lions’ defense for 124 yards rushing but threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles.
Hills has rushed for 294 yards in his last two starts, but the junior has also been picked off six times.
"He’s made some plays for us, but we’ve got to be sure he takes better care of the football," Locksley said. "If we can get that done, Perry is a guy we can win games with."
Maryland’s miscues weren’t limited to the offense. The defense yielded 315 yards passing on only 13 completions, but despite all the shortcomings, the Terps had a chance to win until Hills threw an interception with 1:15 remaining.
"What we’ve got to do is take the next step and finish," Locksley said. "That entails making plays that are there to be made. That’s the difference between winning and losing for us."