Still not ready to say the current Iowa team is special, but have switched my pick for Penn State

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Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa pressures Trace McSorley in the pocket in last season's game at Kinnick Stadium. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - With a 6-1 record and a defense that is flirting with dominance, the 2018 Iowa football team is showing signs of being special.

There is no disputing that.

But there is a reason to hold off on calling the current team one of Kirk Ferentz’s best at Iowa.

Actually, there are five reasons, or in other words, the five games still left on Iowa’s schedule beginning with Saturday’s much-anticipated matchup at No. 17  Penn State.

Iowa isn’t even halfway through its conference schedule, and yet, some want to anoint the current team as one, if not the best team, in Ferentz’s 20 seasons as head coach.

I know this to be true based on the reaction, or maybe overreaction is a better description, to Iowa’s 23-0 victory over Maryland last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Anytime Iowa shuts out an opponent, especially a Big Ten opponent, is reason to be excited and optimistic, especially when it's Iowa’s third victory in a row.

The current team is on a roll that could lead to something extraordinary, but it hasn’t accomplished nearly enough to say that it is one of Ferentz’s best teams at Iowa.

I can practically guarantee Ferentz would say the same thing, although, he probably wouldn’t say anything specific because Ferentz doesn’t like ranking or comparing his teams that way.

Fans have reason to be excited with this being just the fourth time under Ferentz that Iowa has been 6-1 or better.

The other three times it happened were in 2002, 2009 and 2015 and each of those teams won at least 11 games and accounted for all three of Iowa’s BCS bowl appearances under Ferentz.

The biggest difference between those three teams and the current Iowa team, which is ranked 18th by the Associated Press, is simple and obvious in that they’ve already been there and done it, whereas the current team still is a work in progress.

I consider the 2002 team to be the best under Ferentz, because besides winning 11 games and finishing undefeated in the Big Ten for the first time 80 years, it also had more award winners than the movie "The Godfather" from a player standpoint.

From Brad Banks winning the Davey O’Brien Award to Dallas Clark winning the John Mackey Award to Robert Gallery winning the Outland Trophy a year later, the 2002 squad was loaded with Hawkeye superstars.

It also stayed healthy throughout the season for the most part.

And it was fun to watch, led by a dual-threat quarterback, explosive running backs and receivers and a rock-solid defense.

So when I kept being told or reading on social media that the current team was as good, or, maybe even better than the 2002 squad, I posted on Twitter that it was premature to say that, and the reaction was immediate and mixed.

Some agreed that it was premature to make the comparison, while others said what’s the harm in making the comparison?

There is no harm.

I was just stating my opinion about a potentially great team being compared to a great team.

Besides not even being halfway through the conference schedule, the current Iowa team still hasn’t defeated an opponent that was ranked at the time.

Iowa’s best victory this season was against a 3-3 Iowa State team that is currently tied for fifth place in the Big 12 Conference.

The problem with trying to temper the enthusiasm is that some perceive you as being a hater or too cynical or too negative, or as one person put it, a whiner.

I get that it is fun to compare teams, and I understand why the current team has fans thinking that something special is brewing.

I’m just not ready to compare the current team to Ferentz’s great teams, especially the 2002 squad, because more proof is needed.

But should Iowa win its next two games at Penn State and at Purdue the following week, then yeah, start making the comparison.

I’ve gone back and forth on the Penn State game after picking it as a one of Iowa’s four losses before the season.

Iowa is better than I expected, while Penn State isn’t as good as I expected.

The Penn State offense at times relies too much on senior quarterback Trace McSorley to make plays as a runner and passer, while Penn State's defense is ranked ninth in the conference in total defense, allowing 392.0 yards per game.

McSorley is ranked eighth in the conference in both rushing and passing, which says a lot about his versatility, but not much about Penn State’s overall strength on offense.

Miles Sanders is a quality running back, evident by his 110.3 per-game rushing average, but he isn’t Saquon Barkley, who shredded Iowa in each of the past two games before moving on to the NFL as the second pick overall in the 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.

The Iowa defense is also better than last season, allowing almost exactly 100 fewer yards per game than a year ago.

Last season's game against Penn State wasn't decided until the final play when McSorley completed a touchdown pass to Juwon Johnson as time expired. Both teams looked evenly matched, and that was with Barkley playing for Penn State. 

The Iowa players downplayed the revenge factor when meeting with the press on Tuesday, saying it's a new season and a different Penn State team.

And they're right to think that way. The Iowa players shouldn't need the revenge factor for motivation with everything that is at stake.

I’m not ready to say the current Iowa team is special, but I am ready to switch my pick from the summer and go with Iowa.

The Iowa defense might bend, and even break at times on Saturday, but the Iowa offense should have the advantage against Penn State’s suspect defense.

If Iowa truly is a special team that deserves comparison to the 2002 squad, then it has to beat Penn State on Saturday, because if it doesn’t, the comparison is over.

I like Iowa’s chances more against Penn State than against Purdue, which has won four games in a row, including a 49-20 victory over Ohio State last Saturday, after starting the season 0-3.

Both teams are dangerous, but Purdue is dangerous in ways that seem more threatening to Iowa with a bunch of speedy skill players, led by freshman sensation Rondale Moore, who are capable of striking at any time.

Iowa could win the next two games and then lose at home to Northwestern and the quest for greatness would come to a screeching halt.

Northwestern rarely makes anything look easy, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Wildcats have won 11 of their last 12 conference games dating back to last season. And that includes a 17-10 victory over Iowa.

There is no such thing as a sure win in the Big Ten, especially without Rutgers on your schedule, but Iowa should be heavily favored against Illinois and Nebraska in the last two games, although, the Cornhuskers, to me, will pose a much bigger threat than Illinois, even with the Nebraska game being played at Kinnick Stadium.

The chance to be special still is within reach for the current Iowa team. But too much still has to happen, including a victory at Penn State on Saturday, which I  now say will happen.

Prediction: Iowa 31, Penn State 23