College football: Big Ten title game could be all-time ugly

Do Kirk Ferentz and Iowa have a shot against Michigan? (Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)


In what is the most anticipated title game of the year from a certain perspective, the Michigan Wolverines are three-touchdown favorites against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Like a broken record, I say these totals can’t be low enough for Iowa games. The Big Ten championship game is currently lined at 35.5. With the 23-point spread and low total, Iowa has an implied probability of 7.4% of winning this game, which is higher than the total points expected for the Hawkeyes (6.5).

Low-scoring season

During the 2023 season, there have been eight games with totals below the 35.5 mark. Seven of those have gone under the total; Iowa was in five of them, including the lowest total in college football history: 26.5 last week in a 13-10 win over Nebraska.

The Hawkeyes are now 10-2 to the under this year. A few of the other lowest-scoring games include:

Iowa vs. Rutgers, 27.5. Result: Iowa wins 22-0.

Iowa vs. Northwestern, 30.5. Result: Iowa wins 10-7.

Iowa vs. Minnesota, 30.5. Result: Minnesota wins 12-10.

If this game total sticks, the matchup between Michigan and Iowa will be the lowest in conference championship game history. The next closest was in 2015 between Alabama and Florida. The total closed at 38 and the Crimson Tide won, 29-15.

Iowa’s offensive improvements

With Deacon Hill under center, the Hawkeyes are graded as the 129th offense in the FBS, ahead of just Arizona State, East Carolina, Nevada, and Akron. Hill now has three straight games with 28 or more passing attempts. The effort is there. Unfortunately, the efficiency hasn’t quite followed, with Hill completing 39% of his passes with zero touchdowns against the Cornhuskers last week. The two weeks prior, however, Hill had his two best games, throwing for 400 total yards and completing 65% of his passes.

As a unit, the Hawkeyes have improved in total yardage, averaging 247 yards per game this season but averaging 313 yards in the last three games. It’s not pretty, but improvements have been made. Running back Leshon Williams is coming off his third 100-yard performance, while TE Steven Stilianos generated a 37-yard reception after not playing since late September.

At least the Hawkeyes have a supportive fan base.

Big Ten championship: Michigan vs. Iowa

The Wolverines are more than three-touchdown favorites in what could be the lowest conference title game total in history. Are you ready for this? There is a case to be made to back the Hawkeyes in this spot.

Many will look at the 31-0 loss to Penn State early in the season. Look a little closer, you’ll find that there has been a complete overhaul in the offensive lineup. For one, quarterback Cade McNamera was the starter in that game. In addition to the change behind center, there are now four players active against Michigan that were not present against the Nittany Lions. Those players: running backs Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson, Stilianos, and wide receiver Kaleb Brown. Though small, progressions have been made in recent weeks due to the return of these players in yards per game, yards per play, third-down conversions and red-zone attempts. Having more options in personnel makes a difference.

Iowa’s defense is still elite. Phil Parker’s unit has the No. 5 graded defense (behind teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson), allowing the second-fewest touchdowns (13) in the country.

Michigan has turned to the run game in recent weeks, using a heavy dose of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Against Penn State, the Wolverines called 32 consecutive run plays in the second half. In the final three drives against the Buckeyes, 18 of 27 plays were rushing calls. Iowa is the second-best run defense in the country and ranks third in tackles.

Don’t let his battle wound distract you from the fact that Corum is the 50th-graded running back in the country and outside the top 65 in explosive runs. Iowa is the best run defense Michigan will have faced. Stop or or slow down the run game, and let J.J. McCarthy prove that he can get the job done. Against Maryland, Michigan’s offense didn’t rely on the run game. McCarthy had one interception but four turnover-worthy plays.

Backing Iowa is the move. Michigan will win but asking the Wolverines to win by more than three touchdowns against this Hawkeyes defense is too much.