Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Becker

Illinois State. Iowa State. North Texas. Maryland. Indiana.

These are not the opponents of a national contender: not in football, anyway. They’re middling at best, the sort of teams a powerhouse schedules to give its starters some rest.

They’ve been the bread and butter of Iowa’s 2015 schedule. And with three games left in the regular season, the Hawkeyes are undefeated, and, perhaps more importantly, knocking on the door of college football’s four-team playoff, the winner of which earns a National Championship title. At the time of writing, Coach Kirk Ferentz’s team is ranked fifth in the College Football Playoff Committee’s weekly poll, as well garnering the eighth spot in the Associated Press’s rankings. But the Big Ten Cinderella’s success raises a few questions.

Should a team who has played a grand total of two ranked teams compete for a national championship against college football’s fiercest teams? Should a team that narrowly edged Iowa State, a team that needed a fourth-quarter outburst to put away the lowly Hoosiers, get the chance to face the likes of the Clemson Tigers?

The fact that the playoff committee uses admittedly subjective methods to suss out its four participants doesn’t make things easier. Nor does the fact that two of the four teams ranked ahead of Iowa have already lost a game.At the end of the day, it’s easy to root for the Hawkeyes. Though, barring a surprise, it’s hard to see them winning it all this season.

In order for Iowa to win a national championship, they’re going to have to win a conference championship, and the Big Ten is no pushover. The chances are good that the Hawkeyes will face fellow undefeated rank three Ohio State in the title game, and despite the latter’s issues with determining a starter at quarterback, they’ll be tough to unseat.

The Buckeyes have a glut of talent, and it’s led them to be the sixth-highest scoring defense in the nation (and a top-20 offense.) They aren’t out of the woods yet, with games left to be played against No. 14 Michigan State and No. 15 Michigan, but should they represent their division, Iowa will be hard pressed to beat them.

Of the four teams ahead of Iowa, two have likely cemented their spots. After dispatching LSU in convincing fashion, Alabama closes out its regular season with a good-as-guaranteed contest against Charleston Southern and a matchup versus Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

While the in-state rivalry generates plenty of excitement, it’s unlikely to be particularly close this year. They’ll be the overwhelming favorites in the SEC Championship. And Clemson’s last three games are against Syracuse, Wake Forest and the South Carolina Gamecocks. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Tigers at least an 85 percent  chance of winning each of those three games, and like the Crimson Tide, they’ll be a heavy favorite in their conference championship.

Furthermore, there are teams currently behind Iowa in the rankings that could make a push as the season wanes. Baylor is dealing with the loss of starting quarterback Seth Russell, but backup Jarrett Stidham looked like a veteran against Kansas State last Thursday. If he leads them through a final gauntlet that includes three top-15 teams in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU, it would be virtually impossible to keep the Bears out of the playoff for a second consecutive year. Stanford would find itself in a similar situation if it runs the table from here on out: a win against fourth ranked Notre Dame would certainly vault them into contention, particularly because the playoff committee weights recent results more heavily, and the Cardinals suffered their lone loss in Week 1 at the hands of a surprisingly tough Northwestern team. If either wins out, it would be tough to justify keeping Iowa in its
current spot.

This isn’t to diminish the Hawkeyes’ performances this season. Under Coach Ferentz’s watch, the Hawkeyes haven’t had a double-digit win season since 2009. That’s highly likely this year. The Iowa faithful have every reason to be proud of the team that has captured the attention of even casual fans. It just isn’t enough to make them one of the top four teams in the nation, though, barring some kind of miracle.