Hawkeyes can see a path to Big Ten title game

Andrew Logue

Iowa Hawkeyes players look towards Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Jake Rudock (15) during the game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Kinnick Stadium.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – The black and gold pendulum swings wildly.

A week ago, the Iowa football team looked lost, with a dysfunctional offense and an underachieving defense.

This week, following Saturday's 48-7 drubbing of Northwestern, the Big Ten's West Division title appears to be within the Hawkeyes' grasp.

"That's how it always is," safety Jordan Lomax said. "When we win, everybody's cheering for us. And when we lose, it seems like the world is going to end."

The standings reflect a different sort of Armageddon.

Four teams sit atop the West with one loss. None has distinguished itself or made much of a national splash.

Each is flawed, but potentially formidable:

• Nebraska (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) owns the highest ranking of any team in the division (No. 15 in the Associated Press poll and by the College Football Playoff committee) but nearly suffered a crippling blow when tailback Ameer Abdullah injured his left knee last weekend against Purdue.

"I think Ameer just has a mild sprain and a little bit of a bruise on the side where he got hit," Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said. "We're very optimistic there."

Still, it's a situation worth watching.

Nebraska will be off this week before visiting Wisconsin for a Nov. 15 showdown.

• Speaking of the Badgers (6-2, 3-1), they've been rolling since a head-shaking loss at Northwestern on Oct. 4 (beating Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers by an average of 30.7 points).

Melvin Gordon, a Heisman Trophy-contending tailback averaging 7.5 yards per carry, is the offensive catalyst.

The question is whether quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy can pass well enough to keep defenses honest.

• And then there's Minnesota (6-2, 3-1).

The Gophers don't even pretend to be balanced, rushing for 216 yards a game while completing just 49.7 percent of their passes for a Big Ten-low 140.5 yards.

They would be alone in first place if not for a perplexing 28-24 loss at Illinois.

Another defeat Saturday against the Hawkeyes would pretty much eliminate coach Jerry Kill's team from the West chase.

• So what about Iowa (6-2, 3-1)?

The pummeling of Northwestern appeased critics — at least temporarily — and marked the Hawkeyes' most complete performance of the season.

"It's all about blocking out that outside noise," Lomax said. "We just keep it in-house and we stay together."

There was talk last week of viewing November as a postseason run.

"It's up to us to treat each week as a playoff game," linebacker Quinton Alston said. "We're just trying to get to a warmer (bowl) climate, to a championship game."

Iowa plays each of the other three West Division challengers over the next four weeks, making a path to the Big Ten title game Dec. 6 in Indianapolis seem clear.

A loss of focus, however, could lead to a detour.

"In the back of your mind, we all know, 'Yes, we have a chance to go to the Big Ten championship,' " Lomax said. "At the same time, we have to not look at the big picture. We have to take it week to week."