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IOWA CITY — From the Gulf of Mexico to the Fox Sports 1 studios, fans and media howled like wolves outside a fenced-in chicken farm in real-life viewing of Iowa’s football 2015 schedule.
The Hawkeyes kept winning. And winning. And winning some more. After Iowa held off Wisconsin 10-6 and pounding Northwestern 40-10 two weeks later, critics suggested the Hawkeyes were unworthy of a College Football Playoff appearance because of their late-season schedule.
None of Iowa’s final five regular-season opponents reached .500 for the season. Or in league play. Those foes combined for a 9-31 Big Ten record. Three did reach bowl games, but two did so on NCAA waivers. Even traditional stalwart Nebraska finished 5-7 overall after the Hawkeyes put it down 28-20.
As the Hawkeyes ultimately finished 12-0 in regular-season play, the dissenting voices grew louder. Some of the criticism targeted the team’s non-conference schedule, which actually did include two Power Five conference opponents. But the real culprit in Iowa’s season was Big Ten realignment and a soft cross-divisional schedule, something over which the Hawkeyes had no control.
Before the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, Iowa was designated to face Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in regular-season play. The divisional revamp gave the Hawkeyes games against Indiana (6-7) and Maryland (3-9). Among Iowa’s Big Ten competition, just Wisconsin (10-3, 6-2) and Northwestern (10-3, 6-2) finished with winning records. Only a last-second touchdown run by Michigan State in the Big Ten title game prevented the Hawkeyes from reaching the national semifinals, critics be damned.
“I’m just guessing if we had done it, then we would have been in the playoffs, and to me it’s as simple as that,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I would think — you can’t prove it — but I would think a Big Ten champion would have a good chance to advance. And certainly if we would have been 13-0, I think that probably would have been a sure thing.”
In today’s Big Ten, which includes a nine-game schedule, who you play — along with when and where you play them — nearly is as important as your record. Take this season, for example. In most years, Wisconsin’s returning personnel would rank it alongside Iowa as divisional favorites. But the Badgers’ cross-divisional games are borderline unfair. They open at defending league champion Michigan State (12-2, 7-1), then play at Michigan (10-3, 6-2) and face Ohio State (12-1, 7-1) at home before traveling to Iowa (12-2, 8-0). A 1-3 Big Ten start almost dooms Wisconsin’s chances at the West Division title.
Last year, Wisconsin’s crossovers were Rutgers (4-8, 1-7) and Maryland (3-9, 1-7).
“It’s tough, but at the same time as a player and a competitor you can’t do anything but put a smile on your face and say, ‘You know what? I wouldn’t want it any other way,’” Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton said.
Like this year’s Wisconsin, Minnesota (6-7, 2-6) had a 2015 schedule that included playing Michigan, at Ohio State and at Iowa in consecutive weeks. The Gophers competed in all three games but lost them all. This year, Minnesota trades Michigan and Ohio State for Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State (7-6, 4-4).
The location also has some bearing. Nebraska by far has the easiest home Big Ten schedule with opponents finishing 6-26 in league action last year. But the Cornhuskers have the most difficult road schedule (29-11), playing at Northwestern (6-2), Wisconsin (6-2), Ohio State (7-1) and Iowa (8-0), as well as Indiana (2-6).
Big Ten title game participants Iowa and Michigan State have the league’s most advantageous schedules among contenders. Iowa’s home opponents were 21-11 last year, while they travel to teams that were 10-30 in Big Ten play. The Spartans’ tough games also are at home (26-14), while their road foes were 9-23 last year.
Should Iowa again roll to a West Division title and contend for a College Football Playoff spot, schedule questions might come up again. Ferentz, however, has no concerns about such criticisms.
“For the most part if you win enough, good things are going to happen,” Ferentz said. “So we don’t worry about that. We try to worry about winning, which for us is a lot more important. We need spending our time on that stuff instead of perception.”
BIG TEN OPPONENTS’ 2015 RECORDS (HOME)
Ohio State 18-22
Penn State 25-15
Michigan State 26-14
OPPONENT RECORDS (ROAD)
Michigan State 9-23
Penn State 10-22
Ohio State 18-14
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