Forgive the Iowa Hawkeyes for any potential missteps these days, they’re in territory they’ve rarely been.
Well, never been, actually. After Saturday’s 40-35 victory over a Minnesota team that has played as well as a team with three straight losses can, the Hawkeyes are a perfect 10-0 for the first time.
Much has been said about how few expected Iowa to be in this position, and that it has avoided Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.
None of that matters now, however. The Hawkeyes are two weeks and two very winnable games from reaching the Big Ten Championship game for the first time. From there, the Hawkeyes would be one victory from the College Football Playoff.
Who could have seen that coming from a team that hadn’t won double-digit games since 2009 and failed to win more than eight in any of the last five seasons?
Not many, but here they are, and they’re not about to apologize as they continue to climb the national rankings, reaching No. 6 in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls with the new set of playoff rankings set to come out Tuesday.
“They should feel proud of that. That’s significant,” coach Kirk Ferentz said of the 10-0 start. “We had to push it to 10-0. I think it feels pretty good. We’re also focused on the moment, quite frankly, that it will sink in. And all of those things are things you relish a little more now.
“I think right now we’re just kind of thinking about where we’re at today and where we’re heading tomorrow, and at some point we’ll sit back and look at it bigger picture.”
Ferentz is right, the bigger picture will take care of itself. No one will worry much about the teams Iowa didn’t play in the regular season if it beats a highly ranked team — maybe Ohio State — in the conference title game.
But before that happens, the Hawkeyes need to take care of business over the last two weeks, and in today’s college football world, almost nothing is a guarantee. They’ll get Purdue, a team with one conference victory this season, at home this week and close at Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving.
That game in Lincoln will be the real test. The Cornhuskers have won two straight and get this week off. They’ll also be playing that final week for a bowl invitation, something they haven’t missed out on since 2007.
Needless to say, Iowa won’t be able to waltz to Indianapolis.
“The only pressure any of us feel is to not let each other down,” Ferentz said. “So we’re all trying to work as hard as we can, be as prepared as we can, and do what we can to help the team win. That’s all I want the players feeling because that’s how it should be. It’s all about what we do for each other and it’s the beauty of football.”
Cubit has support
There’s plenty to be figured out at Illinois, starting with the naming of a football coach. The Illini are currently operating with plenty of interim tags — chancellor, athletic director and football coach.
In what order all of that gets sorted out remains to be seen, but the players know who they want to lead the team — Bill Cubit.
“It’s time to take the interim tag off,” senior offensive lineman Teddy Karras said. “I don’t know who everyone is waiting for.”
It’s clear to Karras, interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk should hand the reigns to Cubit, the offensive coordinator who has led the team since Tim Beckman was fired a week before the season began.
“Kowalczyk, that should be the first order of business,” Karras said. “Especially with so many openings, who do you want that’s going to be better than Bill? He’s got us going.”
That statement comes after a 28-3 loss to Ohio State. But with one win needed over the final two games to reach a bowl, Cubit has done as well as most would have expected.
He has a track record, taking Western Michigan to three bowl games from 2005-12. And he believes he’s the right person for Illinois.
“I know it’s up to other people to figure out,” Cubit said. “Do I think I’m the guy? There’s no doubt in my mind.”
A victory in the final two weeks would be a huge feather in Cubit’s cap.
“I’m giving it everything I’ve got,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to find another guy who loves this place like me.”
Two weeks after being written off, first-year coach Mike Riley has led Nebraska to two straight victories, and it is one win from a bowl berth.
The Huskers will get a week off to prepare for a visit from Iowa the day after Thanksgiving.
“It’s just another opportunity for us to go show what the 2015 Huskers are all about,” safety Nate Gerry said. “People were counting us out but we are going to show how much character this team has.”
It won’t be playing for a conference championship, or even a division title. But with Riley’s first year spiraling out of control, it could be a huge finish that proves the program is on solid footing.
“It feels good and I know the players feel good about that,” Riley said. “This certainly sets up that game with Iowa and it’s a big game for a lot of reasons, but for us, it’s really obvious. It’s a bowl opportunity, playing another top-ranked team. There is lots of stuff out there for us.”