Welcome to the latest biggest week of the season for the No. 18-ranked Iowa football team.
After Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at No. 16 Wisconsin, we will firmly know whether or not the Hawkeyes are still Big Ten Conference championship contenders. A matchup of 6-2 programs (both 3-2 in league play) serves as a West Division elimination game, with the winner having the best shot of jumping over first-place Minnesota (8-0, 5-0).
Here are five storylines for the Hawkeyes this week.
1. Why is Wisconsin such a heavy favorite?
The Hawkeyes head to Camp Randall Stadium as early 9½ point underdogs, which seems like a whopping number — especially considering Iowa is allowing just 10.1 points per game, third-fewest in the FBS, and the Badgers have lost two straight.
The big number certainly is attention-grabbing and tells us that oddsmakers still believe in Wisconsin’s metrics over Iowa’s. I also think the number reflects the Badgers’ home dominance this season.
Wisconsin has outgained opponents by a margin of 2,251 yards to 885 at home and outscored them 206-29. The ledger includes wins of 35-14 vs. Michigan and 38-0 vs. Michigan State. That’s not just beating the visitors, that’s beating them down.
Another historical note about the Iowa-Wisconsin spread: This marks the seventh straight time in this matchup that Wisconsin has been favored; with Iowa only winning once in that time (in 2015, as a five-point underdog).
In other words, the challenge is annually steep against the Badgers. And this week’s line reflects that.
2. The good news for Iowa: There is no mystery about the game plan.
As Seth Wallace met with the Iowa media last week, the Hawkeyes’ linebackers coach and assistant defensive coordinator laid it out quite simply.
“At the end of the day,” Wallace said, “this game has always been about who can stop the run.”
Iowa knows it hasn’t been up to the task during a three-game losing streak to the Badgers. Even while controlling much of last year’s game in Iowa City, Iowa allowed Wisconsin to chip away for 210 yards on the ground. The Badgers outrushed Iowa, 247-25, in the 2017 meeting at Camp Randall. Wisconsin also owned a 167-83 rushing edge in 2016 in Iowa City, with Corey Clement busting a back-breaking 34-yarder late.
This marks Iowa’s third (and likely final) crack at dynamic Wisconsin back Jonathan Taylor. A year ago, the Badgers lined up seven offensive linemen during stretches to gouge Iowa’s defensive line. The Hawkeyes have three excellent defensive tackles in Cedrick Lattimore, Brady Reiff and Daviyon Nixon; their ascent could help combat Wisconsin if another heavy attack is planned.
“Whether it’s personnel-related or scheme-related, I think it starts there,” Wallace said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us. But it’s a challenge we’re built for. We’ve just got to get our guys to believe in it, then take the plan up to Madison.”
3. Did Illinois uncover Wisconsin’s 'Kryptonite,' as Urban Meyer suggested?
If you’ve got five minutes, search YouTube for the “Urban Analysis” segment on Big Ten Network out of the Oct. 19 Wisconsin-Illinois game. It’s an enlightening glimpse into what the legendary former coach saw Illinois' defense do to limit Taylor's damage and force Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan into mistakes.
“What they did to stop that tailback,” Meyer said, “when you watch the clips we pulled out here, it’s phenomenal.”
Meyer goes on to explain certain ways that Illinois schemed to free up second-level linebackers to make tackles on Taylor. He also pointed out checks that Wisconsin could’ve made to beat Illinois’ defensive plan, which resulted in a stunning 24-23 Illini victory.
“You’re going to see that every week now; because they found the kryptonite,” Meyer said. “… If you saw someone shut down your base plays, you'd better get ready for it. The kryptonite has been discovered. Illinois’ game plan will be used against Wisconsin.”
The following week, Taylor was held to a season-low 52 rushing yards on 20 carries by Ohio State. With an off weekend since, the Badgers presumably will have some alternative wrinkles in place for Iowa.
4. Nate Stanley’s homecoming (and final shot to beat Wisconsin) is here.
At Big Ten Media Days in July, I asked Stanley if this Wisconsin game means more to him. He paused as if to ponder a milquetoast answer; then admitted the truth. Of course it does.
The last time Iowa played in Madison, Stanley had the worst statistical game of his Iowa career — 8-of-24 for 41 yards while absorbing four sacks for minus-37 yards. Then a sophomore, Stanley estimated he personally knew about 150 people inside the stadium, including family and Wisconsin students. His hometown of Menomonie, Wisconsin, is about 200 miles northeast of Madison.
“That’s what we’re working for right now,” Stanley said in July, “is to change that outcome.”
5. Where will Iowa be ranked in Tuesday night's initial College Football Playoff rankings?
Iowa was ranked No. 16 in the first rankings of 2018, while also owning a 6-2 record then. I would expect the Hawkeyes to be in that same ballpark this time around.
Of all the polls, these rankings matter the most. A better CFP ranking can impact bowl selection; with the top 11 teams (plus highest-ranked Group of Five program) getting New Year’s Six invitations.
► Bowl analysis: Where the Hawkeyes may be headed
An interesting test case to watch: How does the committee compare Iowa to Notre Dame?
Both teams are 6-2. Both teams lost to Michigan in Ann Arbor (Iowa by seven; Notre Dame by 31). Both teams have one-score losses to top-10 programs (Iowa to Penn State; Notre Dame to Georgia). The Hawkeyes' three conference wins are weak, but they have the best single win (at Iowa State) of the two programs.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.