I don’t know what’s more improbable – that Michigan State beat Michigan with 10 seconds left on the clock in Ann Arbor back on October 17th or that Iowa is even in this conversation to begin with. But here we are. The 12-0 Iowa Hawkeyes play the 11-1 Michigan State Spartans on Saturday for the Big Ten Championship and a (more-than-probable) spot in the College Football Playoffs on New Year’s Eve. The hype, or lack thereof, surrounding both teams as the season began could not be more different. And the end results could not be more similar. But I’m going to tell you why Iowa can win the game. Let’s start at the beginning.
When Iowa started the season, it was an ugly time for Hawkeyes football. They were destroyed by Tennessee on January 2nd in the TaxSlayer Bowl and then, frustrated fans who were desperate for change, responded by giving Iowa the smallest crowd they’d had in years at the home opener against Illinois State. They even cheered a failed fake field goal attempt because at least coach Kirk Ferentz was trying something. On the other hand, Michigan State was the preseason #5 in the nation and an early 31-28 marquee win against #7 Oregon in Week 2 already had sportswriters and analysts talking about the Playoffs and the national title hopes for the Spartans. They were supposed to cruise until they faced Michigan in October. Then they’d have this ultimate showdown with Ohio State in late November for the Big Ten East title. Never mind that Connor Cook hadn’t really played well yet. Never mind that this wasn’t the same Oregon team that Heisman-winner Marcus Mariota led to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game back in January. Everyone had already decided that Iowa was an afterthought in the West and Michigan State was the real deal in the East. That’s how we started.
It wasn’t until a 62-16 blowout of North Texas on September 26th that anyone began to notice Iowa at all. They’d found a solid running back in Jordan Canzeri, who tied a school record with four touchdowns in the game. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had also looked solid all season to that point. And Desmond King looked like a real play maker on defense and special teams. On the other hand, #2 MSU looked pretty bad in its win against Central Michigan. The game exposed their lack of a run game, Cook was still inconsistent at quarterback and injuries were mounting for the team. Just in time for October and Big Ten play.
By mid October, Michigan State was 6-0, but had two more ugly wins against Purdue and Rutgers. Sure, they were dealing with injuries. And their mantra was that since they were ranked so highly everybody was gunning for them, but they’d been completely underwhelming since the Oregon win and it was clear that this team was not as good as last season’s. Analysts argued that it would be a cause for concern against Michigan the following week. On the other hand, with wins against Wisconsin and Illinois, Iowa was on the brink of controlling the Big Ten West. They received their first ranking (#22) of the season and Jordan Canzeri managed 256 yards (the 3rd most in Iowa history) against Illinois, which continued his season-long praise. The “surprisingly resurgent” Hawkeyes were now bowl eligible and a win over Northwestern could put them in the driver’s seat.
The aforementioned INSANE and unforgettable ending of the Michigan State-Michigan game and the Twitter explosion that followed put the national college football spotlight back on Michigan State. Even though they’d only won this game and the previous two by a combined 14 points. Everyone forgot about their games against Central Michigan and Purdue and Rutgers. Now all that mattered was the Oregon win in September and the (literally) show-stopping finish against Big Brother. It’s even possible that nobody managed to notice Iowa lost Canzeri to injury, but still managed to get four rushing touchdowns out of his replacement, Akrum Wadley, in their dominant win against #20 Northwestern to become the clear favorites in the West. Really, nobody cared, nationally. The MSU finish truly was one of the craziest endings in NCAA football history. Everyone outside of Ann Arbor loved it. And without a convincing win in October and without a running game, the Spartans were back in the Playoff talks and Connor Cook was once again a sleeper choice for the Heisman.
As we entered November, both teams were undefeated with costly injuries and ugly wins. Iowa’s defense and forced turnovers kept them in the games and moved them into the top 10 for the first time. Their win over Indiana on November 7th had analysts talking about a clear path to the Big Ten West title, controlling their own destiny and, for the first time, actual Playoff talk. That was all with Jordan Canzeri still hurt and C.J. Beathard’s mobility slowed down with a groin injury. Not that it stopped him from diving over a pile of Indiana defenders to score a touchdown. But obviously the CFP committee wasn’t aware of any of that because they cited a lack of “offensive explosiveness” in their decision to place Iowa at #9 in the first CFP rankings. The very same day that Playoffs talk began with the Hawkeyes, the Spartans’ Playoff hopes took a huge hit with their ‘controversial’ loss at Nebraska. What everyone was ready to deem a magical season for MSU had actually and secretly been anything but. Nobody had noticed they barely beat Purdue and Rutgers. And that their win against Indiana wasn’t impressive. And then there was the miracle against Michigan. But it’s possible that playing the underdog is exactly where Michigan State needed to be in the long run.
Without Connor Cook, Michigan State upset #3 Ohio State with a last-second kick by Michael Geiger, whose windmill celebration was actually kind of awesome. And the Buckeyes seemingly imploded after the game. Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones said they were leaving the team after the season. Analysts called OSU the most overrated team in the country, saying they hadn’t been challenged all season long, hadn’t played a ranked opponent and that it took everyone until late November to realize the reigning national champions weren’t really that good. But the fact was that now the Spartans were in total control of the Big Ten East and right back in the Playoff hunt. And once again, everyone forgot about all their squeaker wins and their loss to Nebraska.
In the meantime, Iowa had already clinched the Big Ten West with a victory over Purdue. They’d never been 10-0 before in school history. Now they were 11-0. They’d scored over 30 points in 5 straight Big Ten games, which they’d also never done before. They’d already tied records from 2002 and 2009 for most wins in a season. And Beathard, who now looked healthy, was 12-0 as a starter for Iowa, which is something only Cam Newton, Darron Thomas and Jameis Winston had done in a Power 5 Conference since 2010. Oh, and also Jordan Canzeri was back.
On the final weekend of the regular season, Iowa clinched its undefeated regular season with a cold and ugly 28-20 win at Nebraska. Which was the team that, if I recall correctly, beat Michigan State on the same turf three weeks prior. It probably won’t convince any of the critics who totally do not want Iowa (the only other undefeated team besides #1 Clemson) to be in the Playoff picture. But it’s Iowa’s first perfect regular season in 93 years and their first team ever to win 12 games in a season at all. The next day, Michigan State blew out Penn State to clinch the Big Ten East in their best win of the season. And now the two teams are finally set to play each other in the championship and the virtual play-in for the Playoff.
Michigan State has loved playing underdog all season. They did it against Michigan. They did it against Ohio State. But they won’t be doing it against Iowa, where they are pretty heavy favorites. In fact, Paul Finebaum of ESPN gave the Hawkeyes “zero chance” to win the game. And Michigan State already thinks they can win it all, alluding to how Ohio State shocked everyone in the Playoffs last year. Sure, they’re “playing their best football” and “hitting their stride at the right time” and Connor Cook is back from injury. And so is their O line. But 12-0 Iowa is not 7-4 Penn State.
I know Iowa isn’t flashy. But they’ve won games on both sides of the ball. They’ve never trailed in the 4th quarter all season. They’re 4th in the country in turnover margin, meaning they don’t make many mistakes. And they tend to capitalize when the other teams do. And in games against mutual opponents (Maryland, Indiana, Purdue and Nebraska), Iowa scored as many points as Michigan State, while giving up fewer on defense. Plus they fucking beat Nebraska. “Football’s not gynmastics,” as Ferentz said last week and both teams know well. Iowa and Michigan State both have ugly wins. And neither team was supposed to be here in the first place. But while Sparty has thrived on being underdogs, it’s been Iowa that’s had to constantly prove people wrong. Starting with their own fans. And I’d like to see them prove people wrong again on Saturday.
Seriously, Iowa can win this.