Brown: Beating Maryland holds key to Iowa's title hopes
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa's football team is right where I thought they would be at the halfway point of the 2014 season.
With one unexpected twist.
When I predicted the Hawkeyes' record in July, I pegged them 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference heading into the second half of the season that starts Saturday at Maryland. But I had Iowa beating Iowa State and losing at Pittsburgh.
And while Iowa's slow ride to hit its stride has me thinking my forecast of 10-2 in the regular season is a bit too optimistic, a win in College Park this weekend will give the Hawkeyes a leg up in the race for the West Division title. (Hat tip, schedule-makers).
If Iowa returns from Maryland 6-1, I think the division title will be decided on Black Friday, Nov. 28, when Nebraska comes to Kinnick Stadium.
Five of the West's seven teams are viable candidates for one spot in the Dec. 6 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis: The three that got most of the pundits' preseason love (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa), plus Minnesota and Northwestern.
If Northwestern (3-3, 2-1) is still standing after its next two games — Nebraska at home Saturday and at Iowa on Nov. 1, with a bye week in between — it can practically coast to the finish line, with finishing games at Purdue and Illinois at home.
Minnesota is tied with Iowa for the West lead at 2-0. The Gophers should be 4-0 after beating Purdue at home and Illinois on the road. Jerry Kill's Gophers will be 7-1 overall, but a difficult four-game stretch follows — starting when Iowa visits TCF Bank Stadium for the fourth time in five seasons on Nov. 8. After the battle for Floyd of Rosedale, Minnesota hosts Ohio State then finishes with road games at Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Now, on to Iowa, which is off to a 2-0 start for the second time in four seasons.
You remember what happened the other time, right? After the Hawkeyes opened their 2012 Big Ten slate with wins against Minnesota and at Michigan State ... they dropped their last six.
Coach, does this season feel different from 2012?
"Time will tell," Kirk Ferentz said. "It's the second half of the season that determines typically who we are."
That's why Saturday's game at Maryland is so important.
A victory means a 3-0 Big Ten start for the first time since Iowa's magical Orange Bowl season of 2009.
Beat Maryland, then take care of business at home — and it doesn't matter what Nebraska and Wisconsin (both 1-1 in the Big Ten) do.
Nebraska can crumple Northwestern's title hopes with a win Saturday at Ryan Field. Home games with Rutgers and Purdue precede a road trip to Wisconsin, a home game against Minnesota and the regular-season finale at Iowa.
Wisconsin will host Maryland, go to Rutgers and Purdue, and then face three big games in a row — Nebraska at home, at Iowa and Minnesota at home.
If there is a tie for the division title, the head-to-head result is the first tiebreaker. If more than two teams are tied, then divisional records could be factored in.
This is where the home field could play to Iowa's advantage, especially if it defies the oddsmakers and beats Maryland as a 4½-point underdog.
The Hawkeyes have games remaining against three of the other four contenders at Kinnick Stadium. The season ends with home dates against Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Northwestern and Minnesota have just one home game remaining against one of the five West contenders. Wisconsin has two.
We all know that Big Ten football isn't at the top of its game right now. Unless Minnesota sneaks into the Top 25 in a couple of weeks, Nebraska might be the only rated team Iowa plays in the regular season.
But the bottom line isn't style points. It's winning games, period. And chances are, the West will be won at Kinnick Stadium.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow @ByRickBrown on Twitter.
IOWA'S REMAINING SCHEDULE
Saturday – at Maryland (4-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten)
Nov. 1 – Northwestern (3-3, 2-1)
Nov. 8 – at Minnesota (5-1, 2-0)
Nov. 15 – at Illinois (3-4, 0-3)
Nov. 22 – Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1)
Nov. 28 -- Nebraska (5-1, 1-1)