Brown: Can Iowa silence its critics once and for all?

Rick Brown
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has had a lot to cheer about this season.

INDIANAPOLIS — They don’t deserve a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Sound familiar? It should. And I’m not talking about Iowa.

There were cries of injustice last December when Ohio State was given one of four precious spots in the national championship chase. The Buckeyes silenced those critics by beating Alabama and Oregon for the Big Ten’s first national title since 2002.

Suddenly, a league that had been perceived as underachieving for years had momentum. It carried into 2015, when Urban Meyer’s team was the odds-on favorite to repeat. But here we sit, on the eve of Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium with a playoff spot on the line.

And there’s not a Buckeye to be found.

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Ohio State was sixth in Tuesday’s latest CFP poll, looking up at the two teams at center stage Saturday. Iowa, at No. 4. And Michigan State, at No. 5.

This time, it’s Iowa on the national hot seat. This is a team that doesn’t belong. The kid trying to mess up the playoffs for the adults. This just in: Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t care what you think.

“You don’t get here by accident,” Ferentz said. “You have to have an excellent football team.”

Saturday’s winner will go home with an embarrassment of riches. The Amos Alonzo Stagg Trophy that goes to the Big Ten champion, for one. And a playoff berth, elevating the Big Ten’s status even more. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany described it, to ESPN.com, as as a high-energy, high-profile, high-impact game.

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“If you get one, you get the other,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Friday. “We’re just worried about the Big Ten Championship. I think if we win, we’ll represent the Big Ten at a higher level. If Iowa wins, they’re going to do that.”

Ohio State’s national championship was a jolt for the conference that Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler used to call home. Michigan State, Saturday’s favorite, and Iowa have kept the momentum going by getting to this stage.

Dantonio talked Friday about the high level of coaching in the Big Ten and the parity of college football in general. He also gave a nod to his league.

“You’ve got to find the inches,” Dantonio said. “This year, this conference has found some inches. So you find a number of teams up there in the top 10, a number in the top 20, top 25. It’s a very competitive conference, as is every conference in America. I’m saying at this point in time, we’re excelling.”

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Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, says that he never felt the league was in crisis mode.

“To win a national title, whether it was last year or 2002, that was good for the conference,” Ferentz said. “My point there is a lot of times perception overrides reality. I don’t believe there’s a great difference in the five major conferences.”

Ranking conference strength is always a dicey venture, Ferentz said, adding that the playoffs are a good tiebreaker. And that’s what Iowa is on the brink of, despite what the cynics think.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit has not been on the Hawkeye bandwagon this season. But Friday, he made a lot of sense. Herbstreit praised the developmental nature of Ferentz’s program, then added,  “I think they need to beat a team like Michigan State. They need to have a solid win against a powerhouse program to be able to say, 'We told you so.’”

Sixty minutes of football, with a lifetime of “I told you so's” to remember. Not to mention a Big Ten championship and a spot in the playoffs.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.