Cover story: How Iowa can still make the national title game
Last week's loss to Arizona didn't just end the Hawkeyes' hopes for an undefeated season.
Consensus said it also ended any aspirations for a shot at national supremacy.
"Iowa's national-title hopes were all but dashed," the Washington Post's Steve Yanda wrote.
"The national-championship dream is probably over," the Kansas City Star said.
Even Iowa senior offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde ruled it out following his team's debacle in the desert, saying "That's just not going to happen at this point."
History begs to differ.
Ten of the 24 teams to compete for the BCS national title in its 12-season existence suffered at least one loss prior to the championship game. Three of those contests even featured matchups in which both sides entered with at least one defeat.
ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde — who votes in the AP college football poll — says the Hawkeyes' road ahead is difficult but not impossible.
"[The loss] obviously doesn't help. It puts [Iowa] on the outside looking in now," Forde said in a phone interview. "But it's not fatal."
The Hawkeyes can still reach the national-title game.
A loss is never good. But if the Hawkeyes win their remaining games, and the right pieces fall into place, then the loss to Arizona in the season's third game will not be insurmountable.
Most importantly, if a team is going to lose, it should lose early, said Samuel Chi, who established the "BCS Guru" website in 2006, which follows and analyzes the infrastructure of the BCS system.
"The polls have always worked this way — the teams that lose late [in the season] get punished," said Chi, who previously covered California and Pac-10 football for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Yes, the Hawkeyes plummeted all the way from ninth to 18th in the AP top 25, but they also have more than two months to make up ground.
Also working in Iowa's favor is Arizona's potential success. The Wildcats are ranked 14th and will threaten for the Pac-10 title. The more wins for Arizona, the better Iowa's loss looks.
Of course, for Iowa's sake, Arizona will need to lose at least once — maybe twice — to be removed from the national-title picture. But with trips to Oregon and Stanford, as well as home contests with Oregon State and USC, the Wildcats will be tested often.
While Hawkeye fans need to root for their desert nemesis to accumulate a couple of losses, they should also root for Arizona to continue playing well. It would be even better if the Wildcats won at undefeated and fifth-ranked Oregon on Nov. 26.
"If Arizona plays well, that only makes an Iowa loss look better," Forde said.
This is where the double-edged sword lies, said Hugh Falk, the founder and editor of Pollspeak.com, a watchdog group for polling organizations within college athletics, such as the AP poll.
"Even if [Arizona] just loses one time, most people are still going to rank Arizona over Iowa," Falk said. "It's a delicate balance — you want them to lose, but hopefully not too much and look like a terrible team, because then that won't help Iowa chances."
Falk said he expects many pollsters would vote a one-loss Iowa team over a two-loss Arizona team, despite the Wildcats' head-to-head advantage.
"Then, if you're really talking about [Iowa] wanting to get to the national championship, you have to hope that there aren't two other high-profile teams out there with no losses."
While Hawkeye fans should immediately make Arizona their second-favorite team, there are two teams they should root against every week.
Boise State and TCU.
Those teams — both of which sit undefeated and ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in the AP rankings, respectively — are coming off seasons in which they went a combined 26-1 and met each other in the Fiesta Bowl. Boise State won, 17-10.
Forde — who slotted Boise State as his preseason No. 1 — called both teams "legitimate national-title contenders."
"If I'm Iowa, I would be worried about those schools," he said. "I think they both have excellent chances of being 12-0."
Of course, the Hawkeyes also need other highly ranked undefeated teams to fall before the end of the season. Three teams from the Big 12 — Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma — all sit at 3-0 and ranked in the Top 10. No. 7 Texas plays both the Cornhuskers and Sooners. Nebraska and Oklahoma will not play unless they meet in the Big 12 championship.
An ideal scenario for the Hawkeyes would be for the No. 8 Sooners to beat Texas on Oct. 6. Then, the sixth-ranked Cornhuskers would need to lose to the Longhorns at home on Oct. 16.
From there, Oklahoma would need to lose one of its remaining games — tough road games at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State are possibilities — or the Big 12 title game.
Another roadblock for Iowa is top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama (3-0).
Chi said he believes the Crimson Tide appear to be the only BCS-conference team that can go undefeated. If they do, they're virtually guaranteed another appearance in the BCS championship game. Plus, the Southeastern Conference, in which Alabama plays, has produced five of the last seven BCS national champions, including the last four.
"If Alabama runs the table, they're not going anywhere," Forde said. "They will be back in the national championship."
The restoration of the Big Ten
A Big Ten that appears to be much-improved over recent years — and with national media taking notice of that progress — will make Iowa's league schedule challenging, but it could also prove to be one of the Hawkeyes' best friends come bowl season.
Chi, along with other members of the media, attribute a big part of the league's improved national reputation to the conference's bowl success last season. Marquee wins included Ohio State's defeat of Oregon in the Rose Bowl, Iowa's win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Wisconsin's upset of Miami (Fla.) in the Champs Sports Bowl.
With games against No. 25 Michigan State, No. 23 Penn State, No. 21 Michigan, No. 11 Wisconsin, and No. 2 Ohio State still remaining, the Hawkeyes have plenty of chances left for résumé-building.
"If you're beating a bunch of ranked teams, people are going to notice," Forde said. "They're going to get more weight from the pollsters and probably going to get more weight from the computers as well."
Iowa's shot at the Buckeyes in Kinnick Stadium could prove paramount considering its timing (Nov. 20).
The closer the game to the postseason, the better chance a team has at making a last-minute impression on voters.
"It's the best thing Iowa could hope for," Falk said of Iowa's late-season matchup with Ohio State. "Depending on how the other teams play out, if Iowa can get up to third-, fourth- or fifth-ranked in the nation, and it knocks out someone like Ohio State, there's certainly a chance it could hop up there [to No. 2]."
Waiting is the hardest part
The Hawkeyes — particularly head coach Kirk Ferentz — know they must concern themselves with correcting the errors that cost them the game in Tucson before they worry about bowls or rankings.
But if Iowa does manage to go 9-0 the rest of the way and isn't selected for the BCS championship game, Ferentz wouldn't complain much.
"I would be so happy if we ran the table," the 12th-year head coach said. "It would be really hard to think that I'd be upset."
Meanwhile, all Hawkeye fans can do is root on their team — and root against the squads ranked ahead of Iowa.
"Once you get one loss, it becomes a waiting game," Falk said. "You sit, you wait, and you hope people above you lose."
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