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Iowa, Big 10 championship game, a stepping stone for Michigan Wolverines to reach College Football Playoff

Michigan running back Hassan Haskins rushes in the fourth quarter against Ohio State in Ann Arbor on Saturday. (AP photo)

INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa opened this season as the trendy pick to finish second in the Big Ten West. Michigan was unranked in the preseason poll and wasn’t even supposed to contend for the East Division title.

So much for predictions.

Two of the conference’s traditional powers will play Saturday in Indianapolis for their first conference crowns since sharing the title in 2004 — and in Michigan’s case a possible playoff bid.

It’s the title game almost nobody expected.

“A lot of people were pretty low on us,” Iowa safety Jack Koerner said. “They were saying we were overrated, things like that. We knew who we were, we knew our identity as a team.”

Outsiders didn’t think much of the second-ranked Wolverines (11-1, 8-1, No. 2 CFP), either. Lingering questions about coach Jim Harbaugh’s future prompted him to accept a pay cut and change defensive coordinators after going a dismal 2-4 in a fanless 2020 season.

Prognosticators didn’t believe much would change. Narrow escapes against Rutgers and Nebraska and what seemed like a disastrous loss to Michigan State only reinforced those notions.

“There was a lot of noise on the outside,” center Andrew Vastardis said. “But on the inside, we trusted each other, trusted the coaches.”

It made a difference.

The Wolverines rebounded from their only loss with three straight wins. Then, just when the critics figured they’d lose yet again to archrival Ohio State, Michigan surprised everyone except themselves with a dominant performance against the Buckeyes to clinch its first trip to the Big Ten title game.

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