For two months, the University of Wisconsin football players were asked how they could maintain their focus while facing a schedule softer than the Green Bay Packers defense.
In the past two weeks, the questions changed. The College Football Playoff selection committee released its first two sets of rankings and suddenly the Badgers were being asked if they could go 13-0, win the Big Ten Conference title and still not make the four-team playoff field.
If the Badgers have grown weary of such big-picture questions, it hasn’t shown. Under coach Paul Chryst, UW is the ultimate pay-attention-to-the-task-at-hand team. The Badgers tune out the outside world as well as a group of smartphone-addicted college students can, even when they’re 9-0 and ranked sixth in the AP Top 25 poll.
This week, UW finally got a respite from the repetitive questions. The Badgers will play Iowa today at Camp Randall Stadium and, in a switch, the discussion has centered on football, the opponent, the game itself.
“It’s a very, very nice change,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “I’ll keep it at that.”
Don’t take that to mean the Badgers think the Hawkeyes will be an easy mark. Just the opposite. The Badgers know this will be their toughest game of the season to date, but there will also be a sense of relief because the playoff speculation has been pushed to the back burner.
As always, this game is about UW and Iowa, nothing more, nothing less.
“I think no matter what record we both go into the game with, we know what kind of game we’re going to get,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “That’s one of the cool things about Iowa. We have a good idea of what they’re going to run, they have a good idea of what we’re going to run and it’s just the best team on the field that day.”
That’s how it goes with UW and Iowa. The teams have met 15 times since 2000 and 11 have been decided by 10 points or less. The Badgers hold an 8-7 edge over the Hawkeyes during that time but Iowa has outscored UW 300-263. Interestingly, the past six meetings have been won by the visiting team.
That just shows how evenly matched the two programs have been since Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s coach. Ferentz got the Hawkeyes turned around in 2001 and since then Iowa has 82 Big Ten regular-season victories compared to 89 for UW. And since the divisions were realigned in 2014, only UW (twice) and Iowa have represented the West in the Big Ten title game.
Iowa is 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, but the Hawkeyes have served notice they’re better than their record. Their three losses were to Michigan State, Penn State and Northwestern by a combined 16 points. All three are ranked in the latest CFP standings.
But it wasn’t until Iowa dropped a 55-24 bomb on then-No. 3 Ohio State last Saturday that people started to believe in them. The Hawkeyes grabbed everyone’s attention nationally with that astounding score, but they already had UW’s attention. No one has to tell the Badgers how good Iowa is, this year or any year.
“They’re going to grab our attention (anyway),” Chryst said. “It didn’t all of a sudden become, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that was in them’ when you saw that score. I think this group knows that when you get to this week, it’s a big week. ... But we knew it’s a really good football team.”
And a familiar one as UW and Iowa have been reading off the same blueprint for years. Both programs prefer to run the ball first and mix in a drop-back passing game. Both programs are must-see stops for NFL scouts seeking offensive linemen. Both programs usually field rock-ribbed front sevens on defense. And this season, both programs have ball-hawking secondaries.
Mostly, the programs share a physical style, which often results in a competitive game when they meet.
“I think we’re two similar teams,” linebacker Leon Jacobs said. “We want to be physical and run the football. On defense, we’re all tough. That makes a good game.”
It’s also a game that usually impacts UW’s future. Today’s matchup is no exception.
Iowa’s victory over Ohio State jumped it to 25th in the AP poll and all the way to 20th in the more-important CFP standings. The Badgers need quality victories and the Hawkeyes now qualify.
Should UW beat Iowa, it would clinch the division title. And should it also beat Michigan next week, its strength of schedule would become more presentable to the committee. This is really the first chance the Badgers have to make a strong statement.
“There’s no way to really not notice it,” left tackle Michael Deiter said. “These two games are really going to be the biggest games of the season. But this week is the first one. There’s no reason to look ahead to Michigan yet. We have a huge game against Iowa. They’re coming off a huge win so they’re going to be flying high.”
Right up until the first hit. After that, all bets are off in this evenly matched rivalry.
“Every snap you’re just going to hear collisions,” Edwards said. “That’s just the old-style Big Ten football that you love. It’s always just a battle to the end. You can say we’re more than excited, for sure.”
Excited to finally be playing an opponent they don’t have to answer for.