A week can make a big difference. Three weeks can turn a season upside down. For many programs, this reversal of fortunes has resulted in lost seasons and dashed hopes. In Iowa City, it meant new life and a resurgence for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Three weeks ago, Northwestern tied Iowa for bottom in the Big Ten West. They were under .500 that season, and our poll question was who should we fire and which quarterback should be on the starting lineup as we all move into next season.
But the Hawkeyes strangled the Wildcats. A week later they did the same with the Purdue Boilermakers. And just when we thought the other shoe was about to drop, the Hawkeyes defeated the Wisconsin Badgers at Kinnick last week to take home the Heartland Trophy.
Now, three weeks later, Iowa sits West in first place and two wins away from winning the division. Granted, they need the Illini to lose to Michigan (or Northwestern) next week, but that seems like a formality at this point given the 18-point spread.
However, questions remain about this team. Defense continues to be excellent, but offense struggled against the Badgers again a week ago. Though Iowa looked competent in back-to-back weeks against Northwestern and Purdue, it became the first team in more than two decades to total less than 150 yards in offense and win a game.
The Hawkeyes have come up short in all four of Iowa’s matchups this season against top-10 national defenses. They have accumulated 37 points over those four games (just over 9 points per game). They face their fifth top-10 defense of the season on Saturday when they travel to Minneapolis. The forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-teens, with gusts of wind bringing wind chill to near zero.
Can Iowa really bring home the bacon from the cold north and at last overcome their offensive problems against a top defense? According to Hawkeye fans, yes. A whopping 72% of Iowa fans polled expect the Hawkeyes to beat the Gophers on Saturday.
That’s slightly less than the 80% of fans who predicted Iowa would beat Minnesota when asked before the start of the season, but given the way things have evolved this year, it’s certainly higher than when the question was asked a few years ago weeks would have been asked.
Another thing that’s trending in a positive direction is Iowa fans’ thoughts on the overall win of the season. Earlier in the year, Hawkeye fans polled expected an average of about 8.5 wins from Iowa. Over the course of the season, that number has plummeted, falling to a point where well over half of fans expected Iowa to finish with a losing record.
This trend has reversed thanks to the current winning streak. Now, a week after just 29% of fans expected Iowa to end the year with 8 wins, 71% of fans polled this week believe the Hawkeyes will win. Interestingly, 97% expect Iowa to win at least one of the two remaining games.
This newfound optimism for Iowa on the field, combined with Purdue’s win over Illinois a week ago and the Illini’s difficult matchup in Ann Arbor on Saturday, is leading to a complete reversal in the polls about who will win the West.
A week ago, 74% of fans expected Illinois to lead and represent the division in Indianapolis. After their loss to the Boilermarkers, that number dropped to just 5%. That’s because Illinois now needs Iowa and Purdue to drop games on the line if they lose to Michigan on Saturday.
Consistent with the 72% of fans calling for an Iowa win in Minneapolis and 71% expecting the Hawkeyes to win, 70% of fans now believe Iowa will win the West. That’s up from just 18% a week ago.
The remaining 25% is split between Purdue (17%), meaning fans believe Iowa will lose to Minnesota or Nebraska, Purdue will beat both Northwestern and Indiana, and Minnesota will lose to either Iowa or Wisconsin. The 8% the Gophers pick to win the West drops Iowa a game (or more), Minnesota leads the table, and Purdue falls to the Wildcats or Hoosiers.
In the wild, wild west, several scenarios still play a role. Over the course of Saturday we will begin to gain clarity. Illinois and Michigan begin at 11 a.m. CT on ABC. Purdue and Northwestern also compete at 11 and can be found on FS1. So Hawkeye and Gopher fans will both know if their path to a division title is open by the time of the 3:00pm CT kickoff. This game will of course be broadcast on FOX.