IOWA CITY, Ia. — Zach Johnson was walking toward the first tee at Whistling Straits with Davis Love III to play a practice round at the PGA Championship this past August.
But his mind wasn’t on his golf game that day, or the fact that he was coming off the second major championship of his career weeks earlier at the British Open.
He wanted to talk about Iowa football.
“I’ve just got a feeling about this season,” Johnson said.
A self-described eternal optimist, Johnson was on-hand Saturday at Kinnick Stadium to see the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes improve to 8-0 with a 31-15 victory over Maryland. It’s the first time the Big Ten has had a trio of 8-0 teams since ’03.
Iowa is now 4-0 in the West Division of the Big Ten and moved within three victories of a berth in the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 5. That’s a scenario that most every Hawkeye fan, Johnson included, would have taken and run with before the season kicked off.
Iowa opened the year unranked since November 2010. Come Sunday, they'll likely be in the top 10 for a second straight week. But now there’s more on the plate as Iowa heads into November undefeated for the second time in Kirk Ferentz’s 17 seasons as coach.
With every victory, the conversation has grown beyond Indianapolis and the conference title game. Johnson won the British Open at St. Andrews in a playoff. And "playoff" is a word that will continue to chase the Hawkeyes until they lose a game.
Iowa stays undefeated after its 31-15 win over Maryland.
Right now, Iowa is undefeated and in the bull's-eye on the dartboard of skeptics who say they’re not that good, not playoff worthy and winning because of a weak schedule.
"That's fine," Iowa safety Jordan Lomax said. "Outside noise. The way Iowa football is built, we don't really care about outside opinion. We try and do what we can to get better every week."
Talk until you’re blue in the face, cynics. It doesn’t really matter.
And it doesn’t matter where the Hawkeyes land in the first College Football Playoff poll when it’s released Tuesday night on ESPN.
"I'm sure I'll see it," quarterback C.J. Beathard said. "I watch TV and stuff. But it won't affect me in any way. We've got four games left. It's a long season ahead of us."
It doesn’t matter how much their schedule is trashed, by everyone from their rivals’ message boards to the national media.
Same goes for those who defend the Hawkeyes — two Big Ten road victories over rated foes for the first time since 2002, for instance. They can save their breath, too.
Because here’s the bottom line: If Iowa runs the regular-season table and beats the Big Ten East’s representative in the title game, it will deserve to be a playoff team.
And if they don’t go 13-0, the Hawkeyes won’t be a playoff team. Period. End of story.
Does Iowa wow you with its athleticism? No. They do impress with an esprit de corps approach to the game. It’s a unified team, with a one-game-at-a-time mentality.
Does it generate headlines? No.
Is it successful? An 8-0 record tells you it is.
"The good thing about football is there are no style points," Ferentz said. "And when you win, it's beautiful. And when you lose, it's not so good. That's how we look at the world. It's about as simple as that."
Iowa's 8-0 start first since 2009. Rick Brown/HawkCentral.com
Ferentz said last week that he had no interest in apologizing for his team’s schedule. His challenge is to keep his team focused on each game, no matter the record of the opponent. That will be his mission next week against an Indiana team that is 0-4 in the Big Ten and coming off a bye week.
Playoff? Not on Ferentz’s radar.
"Our goal the first week of the season was to win a game," Ferentz said. "Ever since then, it's just been to win the next game. We're trying to keep it as simple as that."
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.