Jim Harbaugh has admired Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz for more than a decade. Madeline Hinkley/Daily. Buy this photo.

Around this time last season, the Michigan football team had just started preparing for its upcoming game against Iowa.

But it never happened.

After a Nov. 28 loss to Penn State, a COVID-19 outbreak within the program forced the Wolverines to cancel their final three regular season games. But now, a little more than a calendar year later, Michigan will get a crack at the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game Saturday night in Indianapolis.

In Schembechler Hall, there’s sharp focus on Iowa this week even coming off the emotional high of toppling Ohio State for the first time in a decade. Truth is, though, there’s always a focus on the Hawkeyes.

During his time at Stanford from 2007-10, Jim Harbaugh claims he and Cardinal athletic director Bob Bowlsby shared an admiration for Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who has been in Iowa City for 23 years. The Hawkeyes’ brand of tough, physical football is something that resonates with Harbaugh to this day.

“(Ferentz is) somebody that you respect and somebody that you’re interested in how they do things and … what caused them to have the kind of success and track record,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “Since being in the Big Ten as a coach, the opinion hasn’t changed. Highest regard for him and what he’s done for football. He’s been a trusted agent and known friend to the game of football.”

That respect has trickled down to Michigan’s players this week.

“They’ve been doing the same thing for years,” senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker said. “They’re traditional. Those guys work hard at what they do, and they’ve had the coaches for a while to do it. They all do their jobs well. That’s what it is.”

The Wolverines may be a double-digit favorite in the eyes of Vegas oddsmakers, but they’ve insisted their preparation this week is just as intense as it was for the Buckeyes. Their identity as a physical, run-first team is mirrored by Iowa, which finished with the fifth-fewest pass attempts in the Big Ten this season.

During the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten West title run, much of their success was created by their dominant offensive line play. That unit is led by junior center Taylor Linderbaum, a consensus first-round pick across 2022 NFL mock drafts. He made second-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten as an underclassman during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

“Their center is really athletic,” junior defensive tackle Mazi Smith said Tuesday. “Serious athlete, tough guy. He just knows the game. You can tell he’s comfortable out there. He’s comfortable snapping it and blocking. He’s comfortable doing everything they ask of him over there. He does a great job.”

Earlier this season, Iowa was viewed as a legitimate national title contender. The Hawkeyes soared as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll and earned a win over then-No. 4 Penn State before losing consecutive games to Purdue and Wisconsin in October. In the six games since beating the Nittany Lions, Iowa has outscored opponents by just 10 points.

Still, the Wolverines know of the challenges that lie ahead. But against a defense that leads the NCAA in interceptions and a strong offensive line, they’re eager to take them head on.

“You can see overall they’re a really well-coached team,” junior receiver Cornelius Johnson said. “They take a lot of pride in practice. I know it’s going to be one of those games where they’re going to be juiced up on energy drinks and smelling salts. We’ve got to make sure we come in and take advantage of whatever we can and make sure we’re locked in and ready to run.”