It's time to accept Iowa as a legitimate title contender

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Why not Iowa?

It’s time to ask the question. The Hawkeyes’ unbeaten run is no longer a sideshow. This is front and center in college football with Clemson, Alabama, Bedlam, Notre Dame-Stanford and The Game.

Iowa is the first team in the nation to win 12 games after a 28-20 victory over Nebraska on Friday. Iowa has met every challenge, exceeded every expectation. It has won with offense. With defense. With smart, fundamental play and efficiency in areas that plagued it as a program just fewer than 11 months ago.

Iowa is not flashy. The Hawkeyes were outgained considerably in the regular-season finale -- 433 yards to 250 -- by the Cornhuskers, who are 5-7 and lost four home games for the first time since 1961. The Hawkeyes did not convert a third down Friday in nine attempts. They have played three teams this year with winning records.

To all of that, quarterback C.J. Beathard offers a rebuttal.

“We are 12-0,” Beathard said Friday as the Hawkeyes began their short wait to learn the identity of their opponent in next week's Big Ten championship game. “We didn’t plan our schedule. All we know is we line up and face a different opponent each week.

"All we can do is win each game. And we’ve done just that so far.”

If Iowa wins next week in Indianapolis to secure its first outright Big Ten title since 1985, the Hawkeyes would receive a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinal round on New Year’s Eve. That much is clear.

Here’s what else is clear: A faction of the public believes that Iowa doesn’t belong.

Finally on Friday, a few Hawkeyes, led by their junior quarterback, said they’re fed up with the perception that Iowa has not achieved as much as other playoff contenders.

“They didn’t expect us to beat Nebraska,” Beathard said. “But we did. They didn’t expect us to win half the games we won this season.”

Beathard said the Hawkeyes have listened to coach Kirk Ferentz’s instruction to ignore the outside noise.

“At the same time,” the quarterback said, “when you do hear some of that stuff, it kind of lights your fire. It kind of gets you going, that people doubt you all the time. We beat Nebraska. What are you going to say next? We just kind of continue to prove people wrong all season.”

Before Friday in Lincoln, the last Big Ten team to win a game without converting a third down was Michigan State in 2013 against Minnesota. A week later, the Spartans upset previously unbeaten Ohio State in the league title game, then defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl to finish 13-1.

Iowa has a chance to do even better. Don’t laugh. It could happen.

“Everybody who is, I guess, hating against us,” senior safety Jordan Lomax said, “it really doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

It's more about the critics’ unwillingness to accept Iowa as a contender. Of the lingering doubts, Ferentz said, “I don’t know what we did” to earn it.

Iowa has not trailed in the fourth quarter this season. It intercepted Nebraska four times and ranks fourth nationally in turnover margin at plus-14. Leading 14-10 Friday at halftime, Iowa hit the Huskers with a quick, three-punch combination, generating a defensive stop, a field-flipping punt return and a 29-yard touchdown run by Jordan Canzeri.

When Nebraska answered with a 75-yard drive to make it close again, the Hawkeyes scored on the next play.

“We’re not going to quit,” Canzeri said, “no matter the circumstances that come our way.”

Ferentz most enjoys the Hawkeyes’ teamwork and relationships, and if it sounds boring, then so are the Golden State Warriors. Ferentz said Friday he admires the same principles in the defending NBA champions, who won their first 16 games (and counting) this season, that he strives to create with Iowa.

“When you get teams that are like that,” he said, “that’s when you have a chance to do something that you’re not supposed to do. I don’t know why people wouldn’t like that.”

The groans about the Hawkeyes as a playoff team, Beathard said, are “exciting.”

As Iowa wins, its confidence grows. At 12-0, this team has earned the right to answer its critics. Asked if he would rather face Michigan State, which controls its fate in the East on Saturday, over Ohio State or Michigan, Beathard said it doesn’t matter.

“Whoever it is, we’ll be ready by next Saturday,” he said.

But is the nation ready for Iowa? If not, it’s time.