Many have denied Iowa the chance to be deemed good all season long. You'll certainly have heard that they only went undefeated in the regular season because they "didn't play anyone." In the words of philosopher DJ Khaled, they didn't want Iowa to win. This is their chance to prove that they deserve to part of college football's elite circle -- where they belong. Here are my keys to the game:
0: Quarterbacks in the nation that have a better quarterback rating than Kevin Hogan after Week 1.
2: Other quarterbacks who have started three Rose Bowls (I'm shocked anyone else has)
18: Interceptions snagged by Iowa's defense, ninth in the NCAA
4-1: Iowa's record when playing for a trophy this season (what's up with the Big Ten and trophies?!)
Win the Battle Up Front
I know it's football cliché, but whoever controls the line of scrimmage will win this ballgame. The matchup between Tunnel Workers Union and the Hawkeyes figures to be a pivotal part of this game. Both offensive lines were elite -- finalists for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the best unit in the game.
While also sustaining a typical Big Ten power running game, Iowa's line has paved the way for 60 explosive plays of 20+ yards, while Stanford's offensive line has helped make Christian McCaffrey become a household name.
Despite all the accolades Stanford's line has garnered, Iowa apparently isn't impressed with Joshua Garnett and Co.:
Iowa LB Cole Fisher also says he doesn't expect Stanford's offensive line or @IamJoshG to be all that much better than what he's seen.— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) December 28, 2015
One thing's for certain: he'll be impressed when he sees Christian McCaffrey run for the first time. Stanford needs to win this battle against Iowa's stout top-15 rushing defense, which includes defensive end Nate Meier. The third team All-Big Ten selection sits at 6'2" and 252 pounds, and is even fourth on the team with 74 tackles.
However, I think the more important matchup for the Cardinal lies on the defensive side of the ball. Stanford's defensive front has struggled with rushing the passer, stopping the run (86th (!) in YPC allowed), and even having enough competent players all year long.
Solomon Thomas, Aziz Shittu, and Brennan Scarlett face a daunting task in dealing with Iowa's stellar offensive line. Whether or not they are able to penetrate and stop the Hawkeyes' star running back Jordan Canzeri will be one of the deciding factors in this game.
If they are able to bottle up Canzeri, Iowa's offense will be put out of its comfort zone -- using quarterback C.J. Beathard to win games. Think of Beathard as a poor man's Kevin Hogan (of the past): he can run well, probably better than Hogan, and pass efficiently, but you don't want him dropping back 40+ times. If they fail to get the push and slow Canzeri, it might be a long day for the Cardinal.
Find A Way to Burn Iowa's Secondary
If Stanford's receivers succeed against Iowa's secondary, they've certainly earned it. Led by Thorpe award-winning defensive back Desmond King, Iowa's pass defense is top ten in the nation in passes defended, interceptions, and pass efficiency defense.
King, the best defensive back in college football, picked off eight passes this season, a total that tied for second in the nation. He's a stellar athlete that is also a threat on kick and punt returns, to boot.
On the other side of the field, the Hawkeyes will line up Greg Mabin, a physically imposing 6'2" corner who has also picked off two passes. Additionally, linebacker Josey Jewell has really been a jewel (Sorry, I had to!) in pass coverage, picking off three passes, including one for a 34-yard touchdown, while racking up 119 tackles.
Michael Rector, Devon Cajuste, and Austin Hooper will have their hands full with this lockdown secondary, and will need to break through to prevent Stanford's offense from becoming one-dimensional. If they can find a way to consistently get open against one of the best secondaries in college football, it will open up the running game for McCaffrey and take a whole lot of pressure off Hogan.
But even if the pressure is put on Hogan, he's shown he's perfectly adept at handling it -- he's 13-1 in games played November 17th or later.
Act Like They've Been There Before (They Have!)
Stanford has been to three Rose Bowls in the past four years. As the great Bear Bryant said, checkered fedora and all, they need to act like they've been there before.
They've had a lot of experience in the spotlight, going to New Years Six/BCS Bowls five out of the last six years. And they've had the same level-headed quarterback in the last three big ones -- Hogan. The Rose Bowl must be getting boring for him.
On the other hand, Iowa had won an average of just over six games in the last four years, and hasn't won a Rose Bowl since 1958. The Hawkeyes have only really played in one big-time game in the past few years -- the B1G championship game a few weeks ago, whereas Stanford has been a lock for primetime national TV and Pac-12 championship games year in and year out.
Stanford has to use this experience to be bigger than the moment, something Iowa players might have to adjust to.