Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Can Hawkeyes turn in worthy encore performance?

Big Ten preview: Can Hawkeyes turn in worthy encore performance?

Iowa fans want an encore, but have the Hawkeyes already played their greatest hits?

2015 was a season unlike any other for Iowa, the winningest campaign in program history that featured a perfect 12-0 regular season and a Big Ten West Division championship.

The success of the season was mildly dampened by constant outcries of a soft schedule permitting such a spectacular regular-season finish, and more so by back-to-back losses when the Hawkeyes played on the biggest stages: first to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, then to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

But considering the only other team to finish its regular season without a loss played for a national championship, those bemoaning the strength of schedule might be better off looking for something else to complain about.

“It’s tough to do. Looking back on the season, it is, it’s tough to do,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said last week during Big Ten Media Days. “Not a lot of teams did it last year. I think it was us and Clemson that had an undefeated regular season. There’s a reason that we were the only two teams that did it. I don’t care what your schedule was, it’s tough to do any way you slice it.”

As for those postseason losses, those were probably a bit more worrisome — that is if the Hawkeyes hope to be in a similar position in 2016. With another favorable road to a West Division title (Iowa’s four toughest games against Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska will all be played in Iowa City), this team has some very reasonable championship expectations.

“More than anything, we learned what it takes to get there, to play in a game like (the Big Ten title game) and play that close. But now we’ve got to know what it takes to win that game,” Beathard said. “To get to the Rose Bowl is a great achievement, but it’ll take a lot more to win one. We didn’t play very well, we didn’t show up ready to go that game. We know now, we’ve tasted it.

“We’ve tasted a 12-0 regular season, and we’ve tasted what it’s like to play in a Big Ten championship and then in a Rose Bowl. And we know what it’s going to take to win those games, hopefully.”

Of course, going 12-0 twice in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done. But Iowa has the experience of doing it once, and with a very similar schedule ahead of it — and with Beathard back alongside one of the nation’s top defensive backs in Desmond King — there’s no reason to think that another trip to Indy would be impossible.

The difference? Handling the expectations. Beathard said he doesn’t care about outside expectations, but history says the Hawkeyes might have quite a challenge ahead of them. Kirk Ferentz’s teams haven’t done the best job following up successful seasons. After the last double-digit-win season in 2009, which featured an Orange Bowl win, Iowa went just 8-5 in 2010. After winning a combined 31 games in 2002, 2003 and 2004, Iowa won seven, six and six games over the next three seasons, respectively.

Maintaining success hasn’t been Ferentz’s strong suit. Will that change in 2016?

“I think if you look back, there are years where we've handled that well. Like '09 and maybe 2003 and 2004. And then in those two seasons (2005 and 2010), that really gets down to just winning close games, doing little things right, those types of things. And I think it's that way in college football in general,” Ferentz said. “Certainly it's been that way at the University of Iowa for a long time. Little things do matter. They are big things. And our ability to handle little details and do little things well on a consistent basis typically is a measure of our success.

“And last year is a really good illustration of that. I think if you look at it all but one game, there weren't many games where we were in the last four minutes where anybody on our sideline felt very comfortable. All those games went down to the wire. They're extremely competitive, and that's just I think the nature of college football. It certainly is for us at Iowa. And for us to be successful we've got to be able to come out on the right side of those things and again it usually gets down to little detail things.”

Iowa is the preseason favorite of many to win the division and return to Indy, where unfinished business would be the talking point of the weekend. But of course there are plenty of opportunities to trip up along the way. The Hawkeyes won’t be the only contenders in what could still be a wide-open West: Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin will have their says.

But thanks to that schedule and the experience of being there before, it’d be hard to unseat the Hawkeyes just yet. So the mission is to do it all over again.

“I notice the difference. I’ve talked about it before. It’s not about becoming the hunter where we’re sneaking up on people. Now, we’re the team that’s being hunted,” King said. “People want to play us, people want to beat us. The four trophy games we have — Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska — they have empty trophy cases over there, and they want to get those back. So there’ll be teams that are coming back for us.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

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?