Opinion | Iowa winning the Big Ten West seemed impossible, but here we are

Did you think Iowa would be heading to the Big Ten Championship Game when it got smacked by Wisconsin or trailed Nebraska by 15 points? I didn’t think so.


Grace Smith

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz applauds the Military Hero of the Game during a football game between No. 17 Iowa and Illinois at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 33-23 at the last home game of the season.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Iowa football players posed for pictures with the Big Ten West Division trophy and proudly paraded to postgame interviews in “Big Ten West Division Champions” T-shirts minutes after their comeback victory over Nebraska on Friday.

“That probably wouldn’t have been very smart to print them up four weeks ago,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz quipped after the game.

No kidding.

The Hawkeyes winning the division seemed like an impossible scenario to imagine in recent weeks. Turns out, it was only improbable. The last month or so has been full of reasons to believe Iowa wouldn’t win the West. But the Hawkeyes, with a little help, won it anyway and will play Michigan next weekend in the conference championship game. Hawkeye fans are headed for Indianapolis. Well, at least the ones who didn’t sell their tickets and cancel their hotel rooms will be at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.

But can you blame anyone who didn’t think this was going to happen?

There were the back-to-back double-digit losses to Purdue and Wisconsin after starting the season 6-0 and reaching as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press Poll. As recent as around 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Iowa trailed a three-win Nebraska team by 15 points in the third quarter. Even after the Hawkeyes scored the final 22 points of that game to win, 28-21, and clinch at least a share of the West, they still needed help to go to the Big Ten Championship Game.

Well, help was what Iowa got. Minnesota, who had lost 16 of its last 17 games against Wisconsin, upset a Badgers team that had won seven consecutive games and needed to make it eight to win the division. In that moment, Iowa (10-2 overall, 7-2 Big Ten) didn’t just hold a share of the West title, it had won it outright.

“Proud of how we fought all year,” Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said on Friday.

The Gophers played Wisconsin’s signature “Jump Around” as Minnesota fans stormed the field in Minneapolis. Wisconsin’s celebratory T-shirts and trophy, unlike Iowa’s, were escorted away from the stadium after its loss.

Iowa won its final four games of the regular season, all by 10 points or less, and got the unlikely assist from its northern rival to do something the program hasn’t done since 2015: go to the conference title game. For a while, this seemed like another season destined to fall just short of any Big Ten championship goals. After a stellar start to the season, the Hawkeyes appeared to be crumbling. Just two weeks ago, ESPN’s power index only gave Iowa a 15.7 percent chance of winning the West, while Wisconsin was the overwhelming 62.2 percent favorite.

RELATED: Michigan opens as 10.5-point favorite over Iowa in Big Ten Championship Game

Would this be like the 2019 season, where a loss at Wisconsin cost Iowa a chance at Indianapolis, or similar to last season, when back-to-back defeats prevented the Hawkeyes from winning the West? I guess not.

“It’s all about how you finish,” Ferentz said on Friday. “It’s about staying with what you’re doing and then dealing with whatever challenges come your way.”

Iowa’s win over Nebraska pretty much sums up how the Hawkeyes have won this entire year.

The otherwise poor offense had one timely drive (that ended with a game-winning quarterback sneak for a touchdown) despite quarterback controversy (we still don’t know if Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla will start next week, by the way). The defense scored points and forced a much-needed turnover. And the special teams were, well, special. You have four clutch field goals from Caleb Shudak, a punt from Tory Taylor that was downed at Nebraska’s 7-yard line, and a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown as the latest example of that.

And above all else, the Hawkeyes didn’t fold when adversity was presented. Iowa finished off its third victory of the season in a game in which it came back from a double-digit deficit. The Hawkeyes didn’t quit in any of those instances when the odds weren’t in their favor, just like they didn’t quit when the West seemed just out of reach.

“You’ve got to focus on the next game,” Linderbaum said Nov. 2. “A lot of things can play out in the Big Ten … First, you’ve got to worry about winning your games that are in front of you, and let other stuff take care of itself.”

Well, Iowa’s next game is its biggest of the season against by far the best team it has played all year. The program’s first Big Ten title since 2004 (and first outright conference championship since 1985) is on the line. And so is a possible trip to the Rose Bowl.

RELATED: Where to watch the Iowa-Michigan Big Ten Championship football game

Don’t get too caught up in that right now, though. Let the surreal nature of even being in this game wear off first. I picked Wisconsin to win the West a couple weeks ago and was nearly finished writing my story about Nebraska beating Iowa when I had to delete the entire thing.

I still can’t quite believe this is happening. Iowa’s players had an idea, I guess.

“If we do get the chance to go to the Big Ten Championship,” running back Tyler Goodson said Friday, “we plan on winning that, too.”

That seems improbable, too. Michigan opened as a 10.5-point favorite over Iowa, and just thumped Ohio State. At this point, after what we’ve seen over the weekend, a Big Ten title may be improbable, but it is no longer impossible.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

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