Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest topics in the Big Ten.

The B1G Story

At this point, with the heavy lifting behind Iowa, we must figure out what to make of the unbeaten Hawkeyes.

Now, more than ever, it’s time to return to home base and reflect on these undeniable truths.

Iowa is the same program, year after year. You can set your fall life to it (as most do in the great state of Iowa).

Iowa will bulldoze you with a strong offensive line.

Iowa will have one or two 3-star skill players perform at 5-star levels.

Iowa will have a tough, bruising quarterback who will win games, but isn’t proficient enough to win big games if the Hawkeyes can’t run the ball.

Iowa will play hard, fundamental defense, and in some years when everything clicks and player development reaches the ceiling for a majority of the unit, Iowa will play nationally elite defense.

Iowa is not now, and hasn’t been in two decades, the best team in the Big Ten.

So the overriding question is this: Can Iowa find a way this season to reach rare success and the College Football Playoff — in spite of being what it is under coach Kirk Ferentz?

“We try not to concern ourselves too much with the outside noise,” Iowa safety Jack Koerner said. “Whether people think we deserve to be this or deserve to be that. But some of that stuff bleeds through a little bit.”

It better bleed through daily — and it better sting. It better motivate this team so significantly that it continues to play its best football week after week no matter the opponent.

Because they’re not always going to be gifted a game.

They’re not always going to be trailing by 14 and have the opponent’s starting quarterback knocked out of the game. When Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford left the game in the second quarter after being driven into the turf on a failed blitz pickup, the Lions were in complete control.

He had thrown for 146 yards, and run for 36 and a touchdown, and despite two interceptions, still had Penn State cruising against the Big Ten’s best defense. He was a handful for an Iowa defense staring at the end of its 28-game streak of allowing less than 25 points a game.

Over the next 2 quarters, Clifford’s backup Ta’Quan Roberson completed 7-of-21 passes for 34 yards and 2 INTs, and ran for 27. And Iowa took over the game.

The boa constrictor that is the Iowa defense flexed, and an inexperienced quarterback was swallowed whole. The Penn State defense, meanwhile, wore down from being on the field too long, and the next thing you know, Iowa is the No. 2 team in the nation.

Do they deserve that ranking? No. Does it matter at this point? No.

As long as Iowa plays with the same focus and energy it did against Penn State, it should cruise through a fortunate schedule and arrive in the first week of December with an unbeaten record and 1 win from reaching the CFP.

In that scenario, it doesn’t matter who Iowa plays in the Big Ten Championship Game (Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan), critical offensive components of a championship season must be developed — or a potentially special season will be ruined.

Step 1: Quarterback Spencer Petras (9 TDs, 2 INTs), who has completed barely 60% of his passes against overmatched or worn out (Penn State) defenses, must be more consistent in the passing game.

The ball has to go downfield more. He’s averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, and elite defenses (Wisconsin, Michigan) will sit on short routes and get pressure with 4 down linemen.

“He’s very hit and miss,” one NFL scout said of Petras. “He doesn’t even make the routine throws easily. He’s getting better, no question. They need him to be good-to-great to win that conference.”

Step 2: Get Tyler Goodson more involved in the game. He’s already averaging 23 touches (21 rushes, 2 catches), but one NFL scout told me Goodson should be getting 30 touches a game.

He has game-breaking moves and speed, he’s a deceptively strong runner and he’s a mismatch in space.

“A nightmare. He’s their home-run hitter,” a Big Ten coach told me. “He scares the hell out of you no matter how secure you think you are (defensively).”

Those two things, and Iowa’s continued growth as an elite defense (forced 20 turnovers in 6 games), should put the Hawkeyes in position to play for a spot in the CFP.

Then it’s a 1-game shot to make a season, a nearly identical situation that played out in 2015 when unbeaten Iowa lost in the last minute to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

That season ended in a blowout loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

This season, potentially, could be Ferentz’s best yet.

2. How the East is won

Don’t think the Big Ten office didn’t purposely set up this 5-week showdown.

We’re halfway through the season, and East Division rivals Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State have yet to play each other.

This, of course, leads to an utter buffet of mega East Division games in the second half of the season – with the division winner not crowned until the last week of November.

In fact, the round-robin between the 4 teams doesn’t begin until Halloween weekend. It’s November, it’s cold, there’s snow, and it’s Big Ten football (the expiration of Big Ten media rights is 2023, just in case Fox and ESPN are, you know, interested in this month-long B1G football orgy).

A breakdown of the road to Indianapolis:

Easiest path: Ohio State. What, this surprises you? The way the rotating home-away schedule is set, Ohio State will never play at Michigan and an additional road game against Penn State or Michigan State.

Hardest path: Penn State. The Lions already have a Big Ten loss, and can’t afford another. That, and 2 of the 3 games – Ohio State, Michigan State — away from Happy Valley.

Don’t take your eyes off: Michigan. Every game will be an adventure because Michigan is nearly a carbon copy of Iowa: It can’t throw the ball with proficiency. And because every game – at Michigan State, at Penn State, vs. Ohio State — will be a referendum on coach Jim Harbaugh.

The great unknown: Michigan State. What do we really know about the Spartans? Mel Tucker has worked magic in Year 2, and MSU should be unbeaten when the show begins Halloween weekend against bitter rival Michigan (Sparty will be coming off a bye week). Beat the Wolverines, and things suddenly get interesting with Ohio State and Penn State on the horizon.

3. Tied at the Husker Hip

Scott Frost made the decision in Year 1. He hasn’t wavered since.

By the end of this, his 4th season, that decision to start inconsistent but talented quarterback Adrian Martinez – and more important, not bring in multiple quarterbacks from the transfer portal for competition over the years – will be his undoing at his alma mater.

“He’s a warrior,” Frost says of his senior quarterback, and frankly, I don’t know that anyone would question Martinez’s heart, toughness and mental fortitude.

The questions are based on reality: He can’t hold on to the ball.

Want to know why Nebraska has lost an inconceivable 15 one-possession games under Frost? Because there’s no consistency at the most important position on the field.

A quarterback who has a school-record 18 games of at least 300 yards of total offense – and another record 8 straight – and who has 72 career touchdowns, is the same player who has 41 career turnovers (23 INTs, 18 fumbles), including another game-turning fumble in last week’s one-possession loss to Michigan.

As damning: Martinez hasn’t significantly progressed. His best production was his freshman season, and every significant statistic regressed or plateaued over the next 2 seasons.

He’s on pace to have his best statistical production this season, but at what cost? Frost failed to recruit a quarterback who could press Martinez, or land a quarterback from the transfer portal who could push him or take the job.

That’s why Nebraska is losing one-possession games. That’s why Frost, unless he gets a win over Ohio State or Iowa or both, will be out of a job in December.

4. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: midseason most valuable player.

1. Ohio State: TB TreVeyon Henderson. It’s no coincidence that once the true freshman got the starter’s carries and gave Ohio State a dynamic threat in the run game, QB CJ Stroud got better.

2. Iowa: TB Tyler Goodson. The most underrated player in college football. Get. Him. The. Ball.

3. Penn State: QB Sean Clifford. Great to see hard work pay off for a player with so many OC’s/voices to decipher in his career, and unfairly criticized in 2020.

4. Michigan: DE Aidan Hutchinson. Has 4.5 sacks, but his presence off the edge and pressures in the backfield force offenses to game plan away from him.

5. Michigan State: TB Kenneth Walker III. For some strange reason, Walker isn’t on Heisman Trophy Watch lists. Leads nation in rushing (912 yards) and has 10 total TDs.

6. Minnesota: RB Trey Potts. When Mo Ibrahim was injured Week 1, Potts filled in and the offense gained another valuable weapon. Has 552 yards rushing and 6 TDs.

7. Wisconsin: LB Nick Herbig. A three-down linebacker who can rush the passer (3.5 sacks) and cover in the secondary (4 passes defended).

8. Nebraska: QB Adrian Martinez. The Huskers have ridden him this far. Why not 6 more games?

9. Maryland: QB Taulia Tagovailoa. After a hot start, he has thrown 7 INTs in his past 2 games against Big Ten heavyweights Iowa and Ohio State.

10. Rutgers: LB Olakunle Fatukasi. Imagine this defense before Greg Schiano’s arrival. Look at it now with Fatukasi (52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) leading the way.

11. Purdue: WR David Bell. Doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback (Jack Plummer or Aidan O’Connell), Bell catches everything thrown at him. Averaging 16.3 yads per catch, with 3 TDs.

12. Indiana: TB Stephen Carr. QB Michael Penix Jr. has taken a step back, and Carr, a transfer from USC, has given the Hoosier a dynamic option in the backfield.

13. Illinois: TB Chase Brown. Not much has gone right for the Illini offense. Brown (414 yards, 3 TDs) is a hard runner who has given the offense attitude in the run game.

14. Northwestern: TB Evan Hull. The lone bright spot on a team searching for answers, Hull (509 yards, 4 TDs) has kept the offense afloat despite uncertainty at quarterback.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread.

  • Michigan State at Indiana (+4.5)
  • Nebraska at Minnesota (+3.5)
  • Purdue (+11) at Iowa
  • Army (+14) at Wisconsin
  • Rutgers (-2) at Northwestern

Last week: 3-2.

Season: 20-10.