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Catching Michigan State: Iowa Hawkeyes

To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. All this week, across every Power 5 league, we’re looking at what it takes to reach the top.

In the Big Ten, Michigan State stands at the pinnacle. The Spartans are 36-5 over the past three seasons with two conference titles, a trio of top-10 national finishes and a berth in the College Football Playoff to cap last season. Coach Mark Dantonio’s teams have won with grit and good fortune, with offense and defense and special teams, with continuity on the coaching staff and through development in the program.

Realistically, not every team in the Big Ten is ready to challenge for a spot at the top. For those in position to make the next move, we’re ready to break it down, starting with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

How they can catch Michigan State: The Big Ten championship game showed just how close Iowa stood from the Spartans in 2015. Michigan State needed a historic, 22-play drive that covered more than nine minutes in the fourth quarter to beat the Hawkeyes 16-13. It marked Iowa’s first loss after a magical, 12-0 regular season. And for the Spartans, the win completed an improbable final month that included an upset victory at Ohio State without injured quarterback Connor Cook, two weeks after a deflating loss at Nebraska. So for Iowa, the difference last season was about little more than timing. Perhaps if Michigan State had left another 60 seconds on the clock, Iowa would have forced overtime or won in regulation. Until the Spartans’ game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds to play, Iowa played for 13 games like a team that refused to be denied. A little more of that attitude may go a long toward helping the Hawkeyes close the gap.

What’s standing in their way: In the big picture, really, it’s a talent issue. While the Hawkeyes came excruciatingly close to a conference title in 2015, the fact remains that Iowa has not won a league crown since 2004, when it shared honors with Michigan. And while the Spartans have stretched success over several years, recording five 11-win seasons since 2010, Iowa has only once exceeded eight wins over that time. The Hawkeyes must prove that last season was something more than an anomaly -- or an every five- to six-year occurrence. Iowa beat every team on its regular-season schedule, but it didn’t face the four best teams from East Division. And were the Hawkeyes close to maxed out as quarterback C.J. Beathard and a group of running backs came of age alongside a defense led by breakout stars Josey Jewell at linebacker and cornerback Desmond King? Iowa cultivated its talent better than any Big Ten program last year, but it has not recruited as well as other top programs, including Michigan State. We’ll soon learn if the Hawkeyes' 2015 gains are sustainable.

X-factor: The big games. Yes, the Hawkeyes more than held their own against the Spartans. But on New Year’s Day, in its first Rose Bowl in a quarter century, Iowa fell flat against Stanford, losing 45-16. It was outclassed by Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal’s front seven on defense. Sure, a few hours earlier, Michigan State also stumbled badly against Alabama. But the Spartans are a proven player on the big stage, winning six of eight games over the past three seasons against top-10 foes. Iowa appears to lag behind in its ability rise to the moment. It didn’t cost the Hawkeyes last fall until December, but future schedules won’t be so kind. Iowa plays Michigan this November, and the 2017 schedule includes MSU, Ohio State and Penn State out of the East.