IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kirk Ferentz was listening to the radio on his way to work Thursday morning. The conversation on one ESPN show went like this: will it be Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State playing Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game?
Bells and whistles went off in the head of the Hawkeye football coach.
“Two weeks ago, they didn’t know who we were,” Ferentz said. “They couldn’t spell Iowa. Now it’s a given that we’re in. And that’s what our players are hearing.”
Thanks to a 7-0 record and a No. 12 national ranking, the buzz has gone from Ferentz’s job security to the possibility of an undefeated regular season and a Big Ten West Division title.
The Hawkeyes’ favorable schedule has taken on a life of its own. A schedule that ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit called embarrassingly easy on Saturday.
“I’m not offended at all,” Ferentz said. “We play the schedule we got. We’re not making any excuses for it.”
Iowa got to this point by beating two ranked Big Ten teams on the road, Wisconsin and Northwestern, for the first time since 2002. Alabama is the only other school with two Top 25 road victories. Of the 14 undefeated FBS schools still standing, the Hawkeyes’ strength of schedule is third behind Utah and LSU.
Iowa’s remaining five opponents are a combined 2-12 in Big Ten play and 14-20 overall. But if this schedule was so easy, why didn’t anyone pick the Hawkeyes to go 12-0 at the start of the season?
“Fair question,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz still has plenty to worry about. At a team meeting Wednesday, the coach gave his players a piece of paper that showed results of games the past three weeks. The point spread took a beating in most of the games listed. The message to his team: take nothing for granted.
“It’s easy to say things are easy,” Ferentz said. “And what looks to be easy or non-competitive, you get in the game and find out it’s a whole different deal. I think that’s especially true in conference play. That’s one of the things we’re trying to combat with our players right now. Because the world they’re living in, they’re hearing all those nice things. One of the headlines I saw Sunday or Monday said we should be 11-0 going to Nebraska. Whoa. Not so fast.”
Ferentz has always preached from the “one game at a time” pulpit. So far, this 2015 team is all in.
“I think that’s part of the reason we’re playing well right now,” Ferentz said. “It’s harder as we go along. If we keep winning, we’ll be in a different neighborhood every week. And there will be more talk.”
Inflated egos lead to upsets. And Ferentz is doing all he can to dodge the upset train.
“And that’s really no different than what we told them five weeks ago,” Ferentz said. “It was unscientific when I said it, but I said my guess is we could lose to anybody or we could beat anybody on our schedule. So what’s it going to be?”
Maryland at home Oct. 31, followed by a trip to Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue at home and at Nebraska. The Hawkeyes’ fate rests in those five dates. Games, Ferentz said, where his team can’t mail it in for a half and finish strong.
“If we’re not showing up at game time, we’re going to be in trouble,” Ferentz said. “I don’t care who we play. It’s as simple as that.”
As long as Ferentz’s team remains in one game at a time mode, a trip to Indianapolis will be the reward. Schedule be damned.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.