C.J. Beathard heard the whispers over the summer. Iowa fans had become restless, unimpressed with what they saw on the horizon.
They had watched Iowa ride a half-decade roller-coaster to become a program unprepared to return to the level of prominence it reached in 2009, when the Hawkeyes went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl. There was the flop (4-8 in 2012), the rebound (8-5, 2013) and then a 7-2 start last year before the Hawkeyes fell apart. They lost their last four games, including a 51-14 debacle in Minneapolis.
"Before the season, a lot of people were talking about 'Oh, another average season,' " said Beathard, Iowa's starting quarterback. "We didn't listen to any of that. We knew that we had something special before anyone else did."
The secret's out. The undefeated No. 8 Hawkeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten), who host Minnesota (4-5, 1-5) on Saturday night, have a game-changing quarterback, injury-tested depth, and a favorable schedule. They'll be big favorites in their next two games and have a chance to crash the College Football Playoff's coveted top four. Iowa is No. 5 now.
The doubtful whispers have become shouts of praise.
"People are excited," Beathard said, noting Saturday's sold-out game at Kinnick Stadium. "It's been a great environment."
It's a far different feel from last season, when Iowa didn't sell out a single game for the first time in coach Kirk Ferentz' 15-year tenure.
Then again, not much has felt like last season. After the Hawkeyes' disastrous finish, Ferentz named Beathard the quarterback over Jake Rudock, who ultimately transferred to Michigan. That decision has looked brilliant, with the junior sitting fourth in the league in pass efficiency and making highlight reels last week with his leaping touchdown over a pile of Indiana defenders despite being hobbled by injuries.
"There's no question they're playing as a complete team," Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said. "Last year they made more mistakes. This is a typical Iowa team. You don't see them making a lot of mistakes to beat themselves. They're going to make you beat them."
Much like Minnesota, the Hawkeyes have been bruised and battered all year long. But while the Gophers have struggled to overcome injuries, Iowa — arguably one of the most banged-up teams in the country — has embodied the next-man-up mentality.
Losing a pair of offensive tackles to the NFL was a major offseason story line, and then their replacements — former walk-on Boone Myers, and converted tight end Ike Boettger — were both injured before conference play. Senior defensive end and co-captain Drew Ott tore his right ACL in Week 6. And at running back, Ferentz has shuffled through three players — first LeShun Daniels, who returned from an ankle injury two weeks ago, then Jordan Canzeri, who Ferentz expects back this week, and finally Akrum Wadley, who ran for 204 yards three weeks ago and 120 last week but is nursing a sore ankle. Several other players are beat up too, including Beathard, who wore an ice pack around his hips and groin area the week before his acrobatic stunt vs. Indiana.
Yet even without Ott, Iowa ranks ninth nationally in rush defense. The Hawkeyes' offensive line-by-committee — Cole Croston, another former walk-on, and true freshman James Daniels have filled in the holes — was one of 14 in the country to be named to the Joe Moore Honor Roll, which recognizes college football's top front five. The scrapped-together rushing corps has put up 205 yards per game, second in the league.
"The good news is it's allowed some guys to step forward and maybe do some things we weren't sure they could do and do it pretty effectively," Ferentz said. "As we start to get guys back, we could be a stronger team than we were in September."
He has stopped to ponder just what a full-strength team would look like — but only for a moment.
"I dream a little bit, but my dreams aren't that big," he said with a chuckle. "I don't want to start getting greedy."