IOWA CITY, Ia. – This seems like the psychological danger zone for the Iowa football team, if there’s going to be one.
The 7-0 Hawkeyes enjoyed their lone bye week with 72 hours to celebrate a 40-10 win over Northwestern – 48 more than usual. Players got to watch ESPN and college football on a Saturday for the first time this season. And they heard people talking about Iowa, mostly in a positive tone. The Hawkeyes are suddenly a national curiosity as the Big Ten Conference's West Division front-runner.
Perhaps a good sign for Hawkeye fans on the outside: players seem to have things in perspective.
“We’re just worrying about us,” senior wide receiver Tevaun Smith said. “But we’re obviously watching it.
“They say some good things. ‘Watch out for Iowa,’ I think they’re just saying that because we’re ranked. I don’t think they really mean that stuff.”
With a disheveled opponent in Maryland (2-5, 0-3 Big Ten) coming to town this week, the heavily favored Hawkeyes could unintentionally fall into complacency.
The attention is impossible to avoid now. Even head coach Kirk Ferentz admits he’s aware of his team’s No. 10 national ranking. The first College Football Playoff rankings will come out Tuesday night on ESPN. Ferentz fielded one question about that during Tuesday’s 26-minute press conference, a majority of which dealt how the Hawkeyes are dealing with prosperity.
“All the talk that comes with winning, nobody’s against that – I’m not poo-pooing that by any stretch – but the people that have to compete, you need to be mindful of what’s really important,” Ferentz said. “That’s the trick. We’ve been down that road before (in 2009 with a 9-0 start). It gets a little trickier the more success you have.”
That’s where internal leadership comes in. Quarterback C.J. Beathard has been at the center of that movement since being named the starter in January. He’s doing his best to keep everyone focused on the day-to-day details and not taking anyone lightly, even Maryland – which fired coach Randy Edsall in the middle of the season and owns a Big Ten-worst minus-13 turnover margin.
“You’ve just got to make sure these guys stay focused, not get a big head,” Beathard said. “There is a lot of noise being talked out there, you’ve just got to stay focused on us, because we’ve got five games left in our regular season and we want to win every one of them. We don’t want to settle for anything less.”
As the captain, Ferentz is charged with keeping his ship steered in a focused direction. In his opening remarks Tuesday, he pointed out that 63 percent of Iowa’s Big Ten schedule – five out of eight games – has yet to be played. He’s outlined to players many outcomes that went differently than what oddsmakers predicted: For example, how in Week 5 Mississippi as a 7-point favorite lost to Florida by 28 points.
Iowa (7-0, 3-0) is listed as a 17-point favorite over Maryland, which is coming off a 31-30 loss to 6-2 Penn State.
“Every weekend there's examples of how wrong the experts can be. But experts don't have to play games. Players play games, coaches have to coach them,” Ferentz said. “There's a lot of things that can happen during the course of a week, and if you're sitting behind a desk … it's easy to give commentary on what you think might happen.
“I'm not criticizing it or making fun of it, but for the guys that have to go out and compete, it's a whole different deal.”
So, for the Hawkeyes, the bye week was about reflection and dreaming big. With wins against four of its final five opponents – which have a combined 2-15 conference record – Iowa would gain a spot in the Dec. 6 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
This week, it’s all about Maryland.
“I'm not a tyrant, OK?” Ferentz joked. “We gave them 72 hours (after Northwestern), and you know, I didn't care – they could hold hands with their girlfriends, take a walk and talk about whatever. But right now, if you're a competitor, you just have to think about what it is that's going to affect you.”
He continued with this sharp statement: “We're going to get defined by what happens each and every Saturday. So far we got seven in the bank. But there's no guarantees moving forward.”