Big Ten

Even in defeat, Hawkeyes prove they belong with college football's best

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Even in defeat, Hawkeyes prove they belong with college football's best

INDIANAPOLIS — There were many who thought Iowa still had something to prove.

An undefeated regular season — one of just two FBS teams to pull that off this year — and a Big Ten West Division crown wasn’t enough for them. The No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings seemed undeserved.

Debate the strength of schedule all you want, Iowa won all its games. But for some that just wasn’t enough.

So up against the No. 5 team in those same College Football Playoff rankings, the Hawkeyes finally had an opportunity to prove they belonged, that they were deserving of being just a win away from competing for a national championship.

While it won’t get the chance to compete for that national title after losing to Michigan State, 16-13, in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game, Iowa did accomplish something: It proved it belonged.

“We played extremely well tonight. We played extremely hard against a great football team,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “They played well, too. So to be here competing, there's no substitute for that. Time ran out on us. Congratulations to them. Time ran out. I feel like our team has a bunch of champions, too.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Colossal late-game TD drive gives Spartans win over Hawkeyes in Big Ten Championship Game]

“I feel like we proved a lot,” defensive back Greg Mabin said. “Defensively, I feel like we went out there and stopped one of the best offenses in the country for the most part. Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but I feel like we proved a lot of people wrong. A lot of people had us losing this game. We came to expect that. We’re used to being the underdogs, we’ve been the underdogs all season.”

No, the Hawkeyes didn’t walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a conference championship, nor will they receive a spot in college football’s final four on Sunday. But if Michigan State is one of the country’s best teams, Iowa forced it to pull off a win in incredible fashion. Because of what the Hawkeyes did in the game’s first 51 minutes, the Spartans needed to put together a 22-play, 82-yard, nine-minute drive to get the game-winning score, a score that only came thanks to LJ Scott stretching for the end zone with less than a half minute to play.

The Hawkeyes kept the Spartans under 200 yards both passing and rushing. The defense played terrifically for the majority of the evening, giving Big Ten Quarterback of the Year Connor Cook fits with a strong pass rush and even better defensive-back play.

And the Iowa defense might have bent, but it didn’t break. Six times prior to that final drive, Michigan State possessions ended inside the Iowa 40-yard line. The results? Three made field goals, two missed field goals and a punt.

As defensive performances go, the Hawkeyes’ was top notch.

“We take pride in our defense. We feel like we’re a defensive-minded team. Our defense is our backbone. We played a hell of a game, we were playing our asses off,” Mabin said. “Ultimately it wasn’t enough. They had a great final drive. They milked the clock down. Drove down a good deal of the field and punched it in for the touchdown.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Though Playoff awaits, Spartans can count mission at least partly accomplished]

And though the Spartans played just as well defensively, limiting the Hawkeyes to just 268 total yards, it was Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard who had the game’s biggest play through the first 51 minutes. Beathard’s downfield heave to Tevaun Smith was a perfect throw. Smith caught it in stride and raced the rest of the way for an 85-yard touchdown. It brought the mostly pro-Iowa crowd to life, and considering the game’s lone scoring to that point had been five field goals, it looked like enough to put Michigan State away just seconds into the fourth quarter.

“We felt like we needed to take a shot on their defense, and the coaches trusted us to make a play,” Smith said. “We just needed to take a shot, needed that momentum, and we got that momentum, gave our defense the momentum.

“But obviously this game wasn’t the outcome we wanted.”

There’s no doubting, of course, that the loss was a crushing one for the Hawkeyes. This year’s group had yet to taste defeat, same for Beathard, who was 14-0 in his career as a starter. A team that rode so high through the entirety of the regular season saw its season crash down in the final moments as the Spartans inched their way toward the conference championship.

So for a team that hoisted four trophies in rivalry games this season, there was no trophy ceremony Saturday night in Indianapolis. A postseason win would yield hardware, but it won’t be the game the Hawkeyes had their hopes set on playing in, and it it won’t be the trophy they were hoping to raise.

“It’s tough. We've gone all season long, haven’t experienced what it feels like to lose a game,” Beathard said. “Every time we've been in that locker room after a game, it's been exciting, joyful and stuff. It's just tough because losing a game like that when it's that close, it's hard to handle. But we have another game ahead of us, and we'll find out who that opponent is coming up here soon. But, yeah, you just got to move forward.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten Championship Game puts program successes of Dantonio, Ferentz on display]

Even in defeat, though, make no mistake: This wasn’t Iowa finally getting what it deserved, this was Iowa proving it belonged.

Michigan State has transformed itself into a college football power under Mark Dantonio, and while Kirk Ferentz’s 17-year tenure at Iowa has had its ups and downs, sticking with Michigan State on Saturday night showed this current up is one that featured the Hawkeyes as very much one of the country’s best teams.

Twenty seven seconds and two more goal-line stops — Iowa had already made a pair before Scott’s touchdown run on third and goal — were all that prevented us from talking about the Hawkeyes and their next step toward a national championship. That’s pretty darn close.

Hanging with one of college football’s finest nearly wire to wire didn’t just earn a pat on the back, it showed that the game featured not one but two of college football’s finest teams.

“We were confident right up to the last play we were going to make a stop down there, I think everybody on our team was,” Ferentz said. “We’ve been there before and done that. It was a great, competitive football game. They had it when they needed it. We couldn't quite get off the field. It's that close. It's how close this game was. I think that's how the margins between the two teams is.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hawkeyes gear right here]

The truth is that these two teams were and remain very close. Michigan State will be the one competing for a national championship, while Iowa might or might not end up in the Rose Bowl, something else that’s up to the Playoff selection committee.

But with national perception such an important part of college football these days, the Hawkeyes accomplished one big thing Saturday night.

Let the debate rest. Let the strength of schedule criticisms die. Even in a losing effort, Iowa proved it belongs at the top of this season’s heap.

“I feel like we definitely proved some people wrong, that we can really play competitive football with the best teams,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we came out with the loss, but we definitely proved that we can play some football.”

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.