IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Junior quarterback C.J. Beathard stands tall as the face of Iowa’s resurgence.
This fall he has been an unflappable presence, a steadying force and, by all accounts, a free spirit. The son of a Nashville songwriting star with musical talent of his own, Beathard allowed his blond locks to drape across his shoulder pads last year. But before this season, his debut at the helm, he sheared his hair close and largely shed his image as a gambler.
Beathard’s personal transformation -- real or imagined -- fittingly represents what America thinks it knows about the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes. Yes, at Iowa, even Beathard, who hung out in NFL locker rooms as a kid and snapped photos with the likes of Taylor Swift, has turned into a boring figure.
“That’s kind of what Iowa football is; we’re not interesting,” left guard Sean Welsh said. “You make it any more complicated -- you get global with your thoughts -- and that’s when you psych yourself out.
“We try not to think.”
The Hawkeyes, one of two unbeaten teams nationally, feature several characters, in fact. Notably, there’s Drew Ott, the raw-egg-eating defensive end with an unexplainable desire to convert his off-road vehicles into watercraft. But Ott, lost Oct. 10 to a season-ending knee injury, also opted for a more conservative appearance in 2015, cropping his beard and long hair after a disappointing finish to last season.
A part of Iowa’s secret to success on the journey from Big Ten castaway to contender involves its players’ ability to blend, suppress their differences and form a unified group that is stronger than the sum of its individuals.
Boring? Sure, unless you’re captivated by the 11-0 record.
“We’re fine with it,” said cornerback Desmond King, an All-America candidate from Detroit. “The team comes first in every situation. That’s what we all want. We just work for one goal and buy into it.”
Seventy-one of the 114 players on the Hawkeyes’ roster come from Iowa or bordering states. For those unfamiliar with the black-and-gold culture upon arrival, such as King and running back Jordan Canzeri of Troy, New York, it takes hold quickly.
“We adapt to it,” Canzeri said. “We know that’s what Iowa football is. It’s tough. We play hard, smart and together. It’s not about how many individuals stand out. When we play together, we win.”
Still, people want to know these guys. Here’s what Iowa can offer:
Linebacker Cole Fisher, the nerdy engineering major who blossomed this fall as a senior after he missed considerable meeting and practice time in previous years to focus on academics.
Safety Jordan Lomax, the consummate leader and a de facto team spokesman who has played through injury and earned a bookshelf full of academic honors.
Receiver Jacob Hillyer, the outdoorsman with a penchant for adventure. He’s reputedly a free spirit in line with his quarterback.
Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and offensive tackle Eric Simmons, the comic relief. They keep it light in the locker room with pranks and offbeat comments, according to teammates. Johnson, at 310 pounds, likes to poke fun at teammates’ physiques. “You would think he’d be careful with that,” center Austin Blythe said, “but he doesn’t care.”
None, though, stand above the group. Beathard won’t go so far as to paint any individual as an interesting character.
“I’m not going to pick out any certain guys,” said the quarterback, unbeaten in 12 starts, including one last year. “It’s a team deal. We’ve won games because of that mentality. Everybody on this team is very special in what they do. And when we all come together, that’s what makes us unique.”
So, yeah, the Hawkeyes are serious about staying largely anonymous.
“It’s kind of like being recruited as an underdog,” said receiver Tevaun Smith, Iowa’s top big-play threat out of Toronto. “No one really knows about you.”
His description fits Iowa well. The Hawkeyes finished 7-6 last season and entered this fall as an afterthought in the Big Ten West -- which they’ve already won outright to earn a spot in the Dec. 5 conference title game -- behind Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska.
Iowa beat the Badgers 10-6 and the Golden Gophers 40-35. The Cornhuskers could present another stiff challenge Friday in Lincoln, Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
“We’re kind of proving everybody wrong,” Smith said. “We’ve got a chip on our shoulder.”
Unable to latch to an Iowa star, the public again is doubting coach Kirk Ferentz’s team this week. It is just a three-point favorite at 5-6 Nebraska.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he’s been “perplexed” by national commentary on the Hawkeyes.
“The lack of respect is baffling,” said Fitzgerald, whose team, now 9-2, lost 40-10 to Iowa on Oct. 17.
Surely the nation is underwhelmed by the Hawkeyes’ schedule. Perhaps, though, people also don’t know what to make of Iowa. After all, this is a team that embraces its reputation as boring.
“When you have guys who aren’t arrogant and don’t want things for themselves, it’s easy to have a team like we have now,” Canzeri said. “It shows. It shows on the field when the tough times come. We’re willing to stick together and finish the hard games, the hard drives.”
Ferentz gives most of the credit to 21 seniors, headlined by Blythe, Ott and Lomax. Beathard joins that trio as a captain.
“They're the ones who really bought in and they've lived it,” Ferentz said. “They've pushed it. We haven't been perfect by any stretch, but our record is perfect.”
And not the least bit boring.