Harty: Are the Hawkeyes legit?

Pat Harty
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Kirk Ferentz never would say this, so I will.

The first half of the Iowa football team's 2014 schedule was so weak that even with a 5-1 record, it's hard to know if the Hawkeyes are legitimate or not. And by legitimate, I mean a team that is capable of winning the Big Ten West Division and competing with any opponent outside the state of Mississippi.

At first glance, it's hard to complain about a team that wins five of its first six games, including both road games and its first two conference games.

Look more closely, though, and you'll see that Iowa has faced five mediocre Division I opponents, and that's being kind, along with FCS member Northern Iowa.

Iowa's five victories have come against Northern Iowa, Ball State, Pittsburgh, Purdue and most recently Indiana this past Saturday by a score of 45-29 at Kinnick Stadium. Those teams have a combined record of 13-18.

You probably don't need to be reminded about Iowa's only loss this season. But it came against an Iowa State team that hung on to defeat Toledo 37-30 at home on Saturday to improve 2-4 overall. One of the many problems with losing to Iowa State is that more times than not the Cyclones aren't very good. So that makes Iowa look even worse.

From a scheduling standpoint, the Big Ten is still the gift that keeps giving, although, the second half of Iowa's schedule is the hard part, beginning with this Saturday's first-ever matchup with Maryland.

The Terrapins are dangerous at the skills positions, especially at receiver, so the Hawkeyes could be in serious trouble if they tackle and take angles of pursuit as poorly as they did against Indiana.

Maryland doesn't have a running back to match the immense skills of Indiana's Tevin Coleman, who rushed 219 yards against Iowa on just 15 carries. But Maryland does have arguably the most explosive receiver in the conference in junior Stefon Diggs. If he gets a defender in space, that defender is likely to be embarrassed while grabbing air.

One of the best things about Iowa's victory over Indiana this past Saturday, besides that it was entertaining to watch, is that Jake Rudock's critics have far less venom to spew now. Rudock showed against Indiana why he deserves to be Iowa's starting quarterback as a fourth-year junior ahead of third-year sophomore C.J. Beathard.

In fairness to Beathard, he probably could start on more than half of the 14 Big Ten teams because the only thing weaker than the teams in the conference are its starting quarterbacks.

Iowa fans are giddy over how the offense stretched the field and burned Indiana with big plays by explosive playmakers, and rightfully so because it was impressive for a change.

But it also came against one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten, so let's not get carried away by thinking Iowa's offensive woes are close to being solved. We still won't know after the Maryland game, either, because the Terrapins also are lousy on defense, ranked 13th in the conference overall and allowing 451.2 yards per game.

But that's OK because you can only play the teams on your schedule.

And it sounds as if the Iowa players prepared well for the Hoosiers.

"We had three really good days," Rudock said. "That's obviously very important. That means guys were focusing and they were mentally preparing themselves, as well as physically."

It also could be a sign that this Iowa team is starting to jell under the right leadership. Even the best Iowa teams under Ferentz, who is in his 16th season as head coach, have made things look difficult at times along the way.

This could be one of those teams, or it could be like the 2006 Iowa squad that also stood 5-1 midway through the regular season before losing six of its last seven games.

Iowa's schedule looks slightly more formidable now, considering how well Minnesota is playing at 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten. As odd as this sounds, replacing road games at Maryland and Minnesota on this year's schedule with road games at Penn State and Michigan probably would work to Iowa's advantage.

So I'm not suggesting that Iowa's schedule deserves no respect because a team that loses to Iowa State at home can lose to anybody in the Big Ten. I'm just saying it's still too early to know for sure where Iowa stacks up, largely because of the schedule.

Either the schedule or the offensive line was considered Iowa's biggest strength heading into the 2014 season. Halfway through the regular season it's clear that the advantage goes to the schedule.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or