116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — It’s clear Iowa football is trying not to look too far ahead.
“We have a four-day season right now,” quarterback Spencer Petras said Tuesday, referencing the four days leading up to Saturday’s game at Illinois.
But when looking further ahead, plenty of opportunity is there for a team to emerge in a Big Ten West division that has yet to see one team look like the outright favorite.
Six teams are tied for first place in the division with a 1-1 record in Big Ten play. At 0-2, Wisconsin is without a share of the division lead.
All but one of Iowa’s remaining games are against other teams in the Big Ten West.
Two teams — Wisconsin and Nebraska — have interim head coaches after paying eight figures to buy out their underperforming head coaches’ contracts.
Those changes bring a level of instability that Iowa has not experienced in a long time. The last time Iowa fired a head football coach was after the 1978 season.
Petras has some familiarity with what Wisconsin and Nebraska are going through. He originally committed to Oregon State, but the school fired its coach, Gary Andersen.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” Petras said. “You don’t know who you’re going to play for, and that’s not a great feeling.”
Kirk Ferentz gave injury updates on some Iowa football players in his Tuesday press conference.
— Defensive back Terry Roberts is “doing better” and “having a better week of practice.” He was limited to special teams in the loss to Michigan.
— Defensive lineman Yahya Black is on an “upward path” from his injury, but he will not be back this week.
— Wide receiver Diante Vines, as previously expected, will not be available this week against Illinois. He has missed the first five games of 2022 with a preseason injury.
As for seizing the opportunity in the Big Ten West amid the instability elsewhere, Iowa is far from the favorite.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Hawkeyes a 6.4 percent chance of winning the Big Ten West. Minnesota (41.6 percent), Purdue (31.7) and Illinois (15.2) all are ahead of Iowa.
Illinois, Iowa’s next opponent, already is one win away from matching its win total from last year. The 4-1 start is its best since 2015, and the Illini are coming off a 34-10 rout of Wisconsin.
“They're basically three points away from being undefeated and coming off a very impressive road win up in Madison,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Illinois is a 3.5-point favorite, per Caesars. Ferentz described Saturday’s matchup as a “big challenge for us.”
“They're playing well right now, playing with confidence, and are very aggressive,” Ferentz said. “They're a talented football team, very confident and we're going on the road to play in a tough environment."
Suffering a second conference loss before going on the road to No. 3 Ohio State would make a trip to the Big Ten championship much more difficult, and the rise of Illinois adds to the long-term implications of Saturday’s action.
When Iowa has come up short of a Big Ten West crown, it’s often because of a critical loss to the eventual division champion.
The Hawkeyes lost to Wisconsin in 2019. Wisconsin went on to win the division with a one-game lead over Iowa. Had the Heartland Trophy gone to Iowa City that year, Iowa would’ve had the tiebreaker over Wisconsin to go to the Big Ten title game.
The 2016 situation was nearly identical, with the Iowa-Wisconsin game again serving as a quasi-West title game. In 2020, Iowa would’ve won the division if it didn’t blow a 17-0 lead to eventual division champion Northwestern.
Iowa’s 2021 division title was an exception. The Hawkeyes lost to two of the three teams that finished one game behind them, but a Minnesota upset over Wisconsin saved them from losing the tiebreaker to the Badgers.
Tiebreaking scenarios aside, Iowa’s performances through five games have not been representative of a team one would expect to win a division title.
The offense is 120th or worse in the FBS in many key offensive statistics, putting a lot of pressure on the defense and special teams to make big plays.
“We've just got to play better,” Ferentz said. “We've got to grow faster.”
How do you grow faster?
“I wish I knew,” Ferentz said.
It’s another reason why Iowa has to worry about its trip to Champaign, Ill., first before thinking about Indianapolis.
"We’ve just got to be diving completely to our process and try to beat Illinois,” Petras said. “And then we’ll catch our breath next week, reassess and figure out where we’re at.”