IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kirk Ferentz was asked on Tuesday’s Big Ten football coaches teleconference how much time he spends addressing the College Football Playoff rankings with his team.
“Probably about 30 seconds,” the Iowa coach said.
Six hours later, things took an unexpected turn. Ferentz’s team jumped four spots to fifth in the weekly CFP rankings, another potential roadblock in the coach’s one-game-at-a-time stump speech.
Iowa is more than an undefeated novelty act now. The Hawkeyes play under the bright lights of scrutiny. And how they do, starting Saturday against Minnesota, will be discussed on television and talk radio as long as there’s a zero in the loss column.
That can be intoxicating stuff for a college football player. It can also throw a wrench in Iowa’s successful approach so far: This week’s game is the most important one on the schedule.
Ferentz has openly discussed the growing challenge of keeping his team focused as the victories pile up. On Tuesday, he sounded like a coach who was confident his team had passed the exam.
“If seems to me that maybe we’re over the initial wave, if you will, over the last couple of weeks,” Ferentz said. “Right now it seems like we’re down to business. It doesn’t seem to be as much distraction or what have you. I haven’t really paid too close attention on the outside, but it seems like things have died down a little bit.”
The second wind arrived a few hours later, when Iowa moved up to fifth in the CFP rankings. National pundits were quick to debate the Hawkeyes’ position. But ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit nailed it when he said that “whether you agree or disagree, based on where the committee has evaluated them right now, if Iowa wins out, they don’t need to worry about you or me or anybody else. It’s in front of them.”
Yes, it is. And the challenge in front of Ferentz is keeping his team grounded. That’s not a problem inside the hype-free Hansen Performance Center, a facility that has brought this team even closer together. Everything is done as one, down to sharing team meals together.
The danger lurks outside the doors of the football complex. There’s a lot of noise right now, from classmates patting players on the back to talking heads on national television giving them lip service.
Ferentz’s players have bought into the one-game-at-a-time mindset, to the point where they’ll often apologize to reporters for being walking, talking clichés. But you’re not human if you don’t sneak a peek at the future and think, “What if?”
No one expected Iowa to be where it’s at right now. Defending national champion Ohio State and Alabama? Alabama? Been there, done that.
Clemson, currently No. 1 in the CFP rankings, was 12th in the AP preseason poll and has been in the Top 10 for the last six weeks. Notre Dame has been in the AP’s Top 10 the last seven weeks, and Baylor’s been there all season long.
When the season started, the Hawkeyes hadn’t spent a week in the AP poll since November of 2010. The season kicked off to no expectations, a shrinking season ticket base and a coach under scrutiny’s microscope.
Now, the conversation isn’t about Ferentz’s contract or how much it will cost to buy him out. It’s about making it to the Big Ten Championship game. And the playoffs. Even a possible contract extension.
The challenge Ferentz faces is to quiet the noise and keep his team apologizing for clichés.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.