Path To The Playoff: Iowa

    Path To The Playoff: Iowa. Really? Iowa? Playoff? It might not be as crazy as it appears.

    September 26, 2016

    By Pete Fiutak
    Follow me … don’t cost nothin’ @PeteFiutak

    What? Iowa? In the College Football Playoff?

    The Iowa that closed out last season losing four of its last five games, including a 45-28 bowl loss to Tennessee that was far more brutal than the final score?

    The Iowa that hasn’t won more than eight games since 2009?

    The Iowa that lives in the same division as Wisconsin and Nebraska, along with a resurgent Minnesota and an improved Northwestern?

    The Iowa with a yawner of an offense and painful inability to rise up to the occasion?

    Last season the Hawkeyes appeared to have just enough talent and experience to be good, and a favorable enough schedule to come up with a great season. Instead, they were stunned by a miserable Iowa State team, obliterated by Minnesota, and faltered in key moment after key moment against Maryland, Wisconsin and Nebraska on the way to a mediocre 7-6 season. But head coach Kirk Ferentz has a history of doing big things when no one is paying attention.

    2002 is a lifetime ago, but Ferentz followed up a 7-5 2001 season that looked eerily similar to 2014 by going 11-1 before losing to USC in the Orange Bowl. The 2009 team was supposed to be okay, but it started out the year 9-0 and ended up winning the Orange Bowl to complete a strong 11-0 season.

    That’s all well and good, but how does this year’s Iowa team possibly make a similar run after so many problems? What’s the Path to the Playoff?

    Step One: Unleash the quarterback

    It wasn’t Jake Rudock’s fault. Iowa didn’t show off much gamebreaking ability at receiver, and the defense had a strange inability to come up with a key stop, but nevertheless, despite throwing for 751 yards and six touchdowns with one pick over the last three regular season games, Rudock was considered a big part of the problem at the end of the regular season. The coaching staff turned to C.J. Beathard in the bowl game, and while he ran well, the offense didn’t do nearly enough.

    Fast forward to the spring, and Rudock has transferred and Beathard has the gig all to himself – now he has to show off his skills. A baller who can make things happen with his feet as well as his arm, he has to be terrific. The line will give him time, he has veteran receivers to work with, and the overall pieces should be in place for him to succeed.

    Step Two: Secure up the defensive interior

    Iowa always seems to find defensive tackles who are overactive and great and turning into disruptive forces who can get into the backfield. Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat were NFL-caliber defensive linemen who’ll be missed, but there’s size returning in Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata inside. If they can simply hold their own, the veteran ends and improved linebacking corps should take care of the rest.

    Step Three: Be better on special teams

    When everything was humming for Iowa under Ferentz, the teams did absolutely everything right. Last season the Hawkeyes got good placekicking out of Marshall Koehn, but the punting was atrocious averaging just 38.5 yards per pop. Two returns for touchdowns saved the average of an otherwise miserable punt return game, and despite a decent year from Jonathan Parker, overall, the pop for the kickoff return game wasn’t there. Iowa has to own special teams in order to …

    Step Four: Win the close games, and win all the games it’s favored in

    Of course, winning tight battles is part of the deal in big conferences, but Iowa had its chances against Iowa State, Maryland, Wisconsin and Nebraska, and lost all four games by a touchdown or less, dropping the games against the Cyclones, Badgers and Huskers by a grand total of eight points. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it doesn’t work this way, but win those four games and Iowa goes 11-1 and is in the Big Ten championship. With no Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan on the schedule from the East, if everything goes to plan, Iowa could and should be favored against Illinois State, at Iowa State, Pitt, North Texas, Illinois, at Northwestern, Maryland, at Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. Any team even dreaming the impossible dream of a playoff has to win those ten games, and …

    Step Five: For the love of God, stop losing to Iowa State

    The Cyclones are going to be better, and there’s hope for an improved season, but after losing 44-41 in 2011, 9-6 in 2012, and 20-17 last year – rivalry game, schmivalry game – again, for the love of God, Iowa, STOP LOSING TO IOWA STATE.

    Step Six: Take advantage of the coaching changes and come up with at least a split between Nebraska and Wisconsin

    Wisconsin and Nebraska are both better than Iowa, and both games are on the road. However, with the new coaches at each school and a bit of a transition period, there might be a shot at coming up with a win over one of them if everything breaks right. The Hawkeyes had both teams beaten last season but couldn’t put either game away. This year, Nebraska will be a tough get considering it gets a week off to prepare for the regular season finale against the Hawkeyes. The Wisconsin game is in the middle of the campaign – the Badgers will be coming off a tune-up against Hawaii. No matter what, Iowa has to win at least one of these key showdowns to have any real shot of getting into the playoff, unless …

    Step Seven: Catch lightning in a bottle in one out-of-team-body experience in Indianapolis

    11-2 might get it done if Iowa can somehow still take the West with two losses and if it can shock the world and beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. Do that – or beat the team from the East good enough to get in over the defending national champs – and the Hawkeyes should have enough juice to get in despite the two losses, and would definitely get in at 12-1.

    Is It Going To Happen?: It’s an impossible sell. Ohio State is still Ohio State – or Michigan State is still Michigan State if it wins the East – and there’s no way Iowa gets into the playoff without a Big Ten championship. Getting in also means going .500 against Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, AND, it means not slipping up against an improved Northwestern in Evanston or against Pitt, Maryland or Minnesota at home.

    And, for the love of God, it also means not losing to Iowa State.

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