No. 10 and battle-tested, Wisconsin is easily Iowa's ‘stiffest test’

Chris Cuellar

What do back-to-back Big Ten results mean, really?

Iowa spent the past two weeks righting its promising 2016 forecast with wins at Minnesota and Purdue. Wisconsin  remains winless this month, yet has earned national respect and a No. 10 ranking.

Saturday’s clash at Kinnick Stadium should clear up their recent forms. Because the Badgers (4-2, 1-2) need a win, and the Hawkeyes (5-2, 3-1) haven’t faced a team this good.

“We’re still in October,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said on Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference. “It’s way too premature to focus on a conference race.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard scrambles against Wisconsin in the 2015 meeting, a 10-6 road victory for the Hawkeyes. The two teams meet in Iowa City on Saturday in a key game in the Big Ten West divisional picture.

“What we need to do is focus on getting better and we probably — not probably, we do — have our stiffest test of the season looking at us.”

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Iowa’s first ranked opponent of the season happens to be one of the most battle-tested teams in the country.

Seven-point losses at then-No. 4 Michigan and against No. 2 Ohio State haven’t hurt Wisconsin in the eyes of pollsters or rival coaches. The physical games were broadcast on ABC on the heels of Badger victories over LSU and Michigan State teams both in the top 10 at the time.

The highest-ranked two-loss team in both The Associated Press and USA TODAY polls has the fourth-toughest strength of schedule, according to statistician Jeff Sagarin. And that experience will line up across from Iowa at 11 a.m. on ESPN.

“I’m very appreciative in the program and where we’re at nationally,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said Monday at his weekly news conference. “We don’t need it to validate who we are and what we are and what we need to do, but you appreciate it.”

Sagarin cites Iowa’s strength of schedule at 77th in the FBS, with the toughest opponent thus far — Northwestern, of the 38-31 homecoming upset — rated 44th overall. The Hawkeyes are also one of eight Power Five squads that has yet to play a poll-ranked team.

By any measurement, Wisconsin offers a jump up in class.

“If you look at the last five or six years, there aren’t a lot of teams playing better than them nationally,” Ferentz said.

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Iowa’s bid to protect the Heartland Trophy will require snapping a five-game win streak for road teams in this series. An intense 10-6 game in 2015 ended the Badgers’ nine-game run in trophy contest and was a sign of things to come for both teams.

Wisconsin was the first ranked opponent the Hawkeyes saw last year, too.

“All I really care about is this group,” Chryst said. “We want to be the best team that we can … At the end of the year, people can write who we were and what we were.”

A win by the Hawkeyes would be their third straight and mark the first time Wisconsin has lost three in a row in the same season since 2008. The last loss in the four-game skid that year? An 11 a.m. kickoff in Iowa City.

Both teams should be ready on Saturday to prove their Big Ten bona fides.

“I couldn’t tell you what the rest of the country thinks of us,” Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook said Monday. “But I know what we think of our team and we want to be as successful as we can.”

Wisconsin narrowly leads the all-time series with Iowa, 44-43-2.


Iowa and Wisconsin have had contrasting schedules ahead of Saturday’s game in Iowa City. Here are their results so far this season with their opponents’ current Division I ranking. Sagarin ratings are as of Oct. 15 and courtesy of USA TODAY.

IOWA (Sagarin ranking: 33)

Date                     Opponent           W-L        Score     Rank     

Sept. 3                 Miami (OH)         W           45-21     148

Sept. 10               Iowa State           W           42-3       83

Sept. 17               N.D. State           L             23-21     53

Sept. 24               Rutgers                W           14-7       125

Oct. 1                   Northwestern     L             38-31     44

Oct. 8                   Minnesota           W           14-7       49

Oct. 15                 Purdue                 W           49-35     109

WISCONSIN (Sagarin ranking: 12)

Date                     Opponent           W/L       Score     Rank     

Sept. 3                 LSU                       W           16-14     8

Sept. 10               Akron                   W           54-10     100

Sept. 17               Georgia State     W           23-17     118

Sept. 24               Michigan State  W           30-6       61

Oct. 1                   Michigan             L             14-7       3

Oct. 15                 Ohio State           L             30-23     2