Unbeaten and under the radar, don’t sleep on Iowa

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  • Iowa defensive back Desmond King gets tackled during a punt return in the game against Illinois at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 10.

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By Dan Escalona

It’s sometimes easy to forget that there is an entire dimension of Big Ten football outside the states of Ohio and Michigan.

But now, arriving as a reprieve of sorts to the same old-same old Big Ten contenders are the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Undefeated and on the verge of running away with the Big Ten West, Iowa is in the midst of its best campaign since 2009.

Though the Hawkeyes are still on the outside looking in the College Football Playoff race – sitting at No.10 – it is time to consider them a viable CFP contender.

Iowa, provided it emerges victorious in its remaining four games, will enter the Big Ten championship game against presumably either Michigan State or Ohio State with a legitimate chance to shock the conference – and force the selection committee to consider its case.

In making use of the classic Big Ten combination of a stingy defense and productive ground attack, the Hawkeyes’ surprising run to the playoff has become a distinct possibility.

They may not have the star power, the flashy offensive stats or the spread formations of other playoff contenders, but they do have a defense capable of potentially upsetting the more talented Spartan and Buckeye squads down the line.

Iowa’s return to Big Ten relevance has been cemented by the play of stifling defense that has allowed an average of 15.3 points per game — good for sixth in the country.

The solid performance thus far by the defensive unit has been highlighted by the contributions of cornerback Desmond King, who leads the nation with seven interceptions. King has announced himself as one of the conference’s elite defensive standouts, as evidenced by a two-interception performance against Wisconsin and an 88-yard interception return last week against Maryland.

The running game, Iowa’s other crucial key to success, has accounted for over 200 yards per game — second only to Ohio State. The ground attack has been buoyed by Jordan Canzeri, who has kickstarted the offense by rushing for 698 yards — an average of 5.1 yards per carry and nine touchdowns.ss His biggest highlight of the season came against Illinois when he rushed for 256 yards.

Recently, though, Canzeri has been rendered unavailable following an ankle injury he suffered Oct. 10 against Northwestern. But, in a testament to the program’s depth at the position, Akrum Wadley as fill the void effectively for the Hawkeyes. Wadley has rushed for 306 yardsss and six scores, including a 210-yard performance in the team’s 40-10 rout over Northwestern.

Despite Iowa’s 8-0 start, the cloud of doubt heavily hanging above the team has to do with its strength of schedule – or lack thereof.

Among FBS teams, the Hawkeyes hold a pedestrian No. 56 ranking in strength of schedule – a ranking that puts them behind the likes of Illinois, Nebraska and Indiana. Even statement wins over formerly ranked teams in Pittsburgh and Northwestern aren’t as impressive as they once were considering those two teams have fallen back to Earth.

This rather weak strength of schedule will continue for the rest of the season, something that will be thoroughly examined by the selection committee if Iowa manages to remain in the playoff discussion by early December.

However the season turns out for Iowa, 2015 will likely mark the rekindling of the program as a Big Ten power. With a manageable schedule the rest of the season — even if Hawkeyes lose in the Big Ten title game — a New Year’s Six bowl game is certainly not out of their reach. Above all, head coach Kirk Ferentzss, who entered the season with a lot to prove, has most likely retained his job for the foreseeable future.

Ignoring legitimate concerns regarding the strength of schedule for a moment, it would be unwise to fall dormant on the Hawkeyes.

Remaining undefeated after eight games should not be regarded as a fluke, and whoever wins the Big Ten East cannot forget to tread lightly.

Dan is a senior in Media. [email protected] @danescalona77