Iowa is having one of the strangest seasons in recent history. The Hawkeyes win games in ways that don’t make sense to the conventional fan or even the media. We keep saying, “Well, if they don’t start playing better offensively, they can’t sustain this.” Or, “There’s no way they’re the No. 2 team in the country!”

That’s fair.

However, I’d stop short of calling the Hawkeyes overrated or unworthy of playing Michigan (11-1, 8-1) in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday. They’re not lucky to be here. They shouldn’t be underdogs against 3-win teams, as they recently were against Nebraska.

The question that the rest of college football should be asking is this: How does Iowa keep winning despite having the second worst offense in the Big Ten and the No. 123rd-ranked offense in the country? That’s a positive, not a negative. That tells me they are doing so many things right to make up for a very below-average offense. And it’s something that other programs should be trying to tap into.

Take the regular season finale at Nebraska, for example. Did you notice how at the first hint of trouble for Nebraska, Iowa seemed to transform into this confident, superior team despite getting dominated for 3 quarters? That’s not an accident, that’s a team that knows how to win. That’s a coach who has prepared his team for those moments. And they got it done by kicking 4 field goals, blocking a punt for a TD and getting a safety before finally scoring the go-ahead touchdown with, you know, their offense.

And not to rag on Nebraska too much, but it had the No. 2 offense in the Big Ten this season. What good did that do? The Huskers won all of 3 games. At the first sign of trouble, Nebraska self-destructs.

We have a season’s worth of evidence of that for both teams; it’s established. Yet Vegas put Nebraska as 1.5-point favorite, even though it had a redshirt freshman making his first career start.

See what I mean? That’s disrespect.

Maybe it’s hard to quantify something like that, but you can quantify how Iowa has mastered all of the areas aside from offense, which obviously gets the most shine in terms of highlight shows and social media. But there are 3 phases of the game, not 1.

  • Iowa is 6th in the country in yards per play allowed, and it was 1st last year. It hasn’t been worse than 14th in the last 4 years.
  • The Hawkeyes lead the country with 22 interceptions. Fumbles can be random, but a ball-hawking secondary is more reliable from game to game. Iowa needs just 1 more INT over the last 2 games to have the most interceptions by a team since San Diego State had 26 in 2016.
  • Caleb Shudak, a sixth-year senior who has been a backup to Keith Duncan, is 22-of-25 on field goal attempts this season, which is the 14th-best percentage in the country.
  • Iowa has one of the best punters in the country in Tory Taylor, who coined the phrase “punting is winning.” In a game against Penn State, he had 6 punts downed inside the 13-yard line. That’s a weapon as the punter.

Bare in mind, the Hawkeyes were 99th in returning production this year. They have a ton of roster turnover each year because they play so many upperclassmen and let players develop their first few years. They have a system, and it works.

All that said, this is probably the ceiling for Iowa with such a limited offense. It is so good on defense and on special teams that asking any more of those units isn’t realistic. To be a College Football Playoff team, Iowa needs to at least be a middle-of-the-pack offense, but that’s not unusual. To be a CFP team, Michigan State needs a much better pass defense; Ohio State needs a much better run defense. You can always poke holes in just about every team in a given year, except for those truly transcendent teams like 2020 Alabama or 2019 LSU. Iowa needs a much better offense to take this thing to the next level, but that’s a topic for another day.

This is about appreciating what Iowa does very well, not the areas of the game that it struggles in. Ohio State would love to get these sorts of contributions on defense and special teams that Iowa does, just like Iowa would love to have even a fraction of the offense that Ohio State possesses.

Iowa may play a different style than most of college football, one that seems outdated. But it works for them. The Hawkeyes have won the 12th-most games in the country since 2015 using a similar formula, even if the offense hasn’t quite been as bad as this. But Iowa is even better this year in some of these key areas, and that is why it is in position to win a Big Ten title.

It may not be the flashiest bunch, but Iowa has a winning formula. Others around the country should take note.