Hawkeyes comfortable under the radar

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- When the preseason polls come out in August, the Iowa Hawkeyes likely won't be included.

That's not a bad thing.

Iowa didn't receive a single vote in the preseason AP Poll in 2002. The Hawkeyes went on to win 11 games and reach the Orange Bowl.

After winning 31 games and two Big Ten titles between 2002-04, Iowa entered the 2005 season ranked No. 11 nationally. It went 7-5 that year.

Despite a strong finish to the 2008 season, the Hawkeyes squeaked into the preseason rankings (No. 22 AP, No. 21 Coaches'). They were nationally relevant but hardly overhyped. And after a major scare against FCS Northern Iowa in Week 1, Iowa slipped out of the polls. It responded with a team-record 9-0 start and finished the season ranked seventh in both polls after winning the Orange Bowl.

The respect Iowa and its rabid fans crave arrived last summer as the Hawkeyes debuted in the Top 10 in both polls. Some even listed Iowa as a fringe national title contender. The team stumbled to 7-5 before a dramatic win in the Insight Bowl.

"When we start kind of off the radar, not in the Top 25, we always seem to raise expectations, within the program, especially," senior tight end Brad Herman said. "It's very easy to slip into the hype, people always patting you on the back and then you lose one or two games and all of a sudden the sky is falling. History shows that's the case."

Hawkeyes' veterans like Herman and defensive tackle Mike Daniels know what it's like to be both hyped and somewhat forgotten. There's no doubt how they'd rather be viewed.

"Iowa guys, we love to play with a chip on our shoulder," Daniels said, "and being under the radar just makes that chip even larger."

It's also a familiar realm for Iowa players.

Most of them weren't decorated recruits. They play for a program that would much rather list the number of walk-ons it has sent to the NFL than brag about the number of five-star prospects it signs each February.

Iowa players aren't used to hearing how great they are, and Kirk Ferentz and his assistants make sure it stays that way. Although Hawkeye football is the biggest show in the state, the team sometimes goes out of its way to avoid the media spotlight.

The underdog mentality is ingrained in the culture here, and it has helped on fall Saturdays.

"That's the tradition," defensive end Broderick Binns said. "Coach Ferentz looks for guys who are willing to work hard, have good character, who aren't going to be [jerks]. It's not tradition for coach Ferentz to bring in a guy that's four or five stars, who's all glamorous. Iowa's not about that. We're all about, 'Put your feet in the ground and go to work.'"

Iowa will go to work this fall without the potential distractions/pressure brought on by preseason accolades. The Hawkeyes' star power is gone, and the team must fill gaps at nearly every position.

Quarterback Ricky Stanzi, a three-year starter and a local cult hero, has departed for the NFL. Iowa loses three multiyear starters along the defensive line, including a likely first-round pick (Adrian Clayborn) and a likely second-rounder (Christian Ballard). Both starting safeties depart (Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood) along with receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, tight end Allen Reisner and standout punter Ryan Donahue. Iowa returns only five starters on both sides of the ball.

It'll be an uphill climb for respect, but the Hawkeyes don't mind.

"We all have a goal: the Big Ten championship," Herman said. "That's something we state at the beginning of every single season. Being under the radar kind of relieves the pressure a little bit. We aren't really being talked about right now, and that's fine. Nothing changes around here."

If nothing changes this fall, Iowa will find itself in plenty of tightly contested contests. Drama has been the norm for Iowa the past few seasons.

In 2008, the team dropped four of its first nine games by five points or fewer and faced No. 3 Penn State as an underdog. A 24-23 victory against the Nittany Lions transformed Iowa into a clutch team. The Hawkeyes won their next five games decided by five points or fewer and rallied for wins in eight of their first nine games in 2009.

But Iowa's fortunes turned last fall. All five of its losses came by seven points or fewer, including three straight to end the regular season. A team that prides itself on finishing strong repeatedly crumbled in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes responded in the bowl game against Missouri, rallying for a 27-24 win, but players and coaches agreed the season was a disappointment.

"We're sitting there at 7-2 and lost three games by 10 points, so what can we do to do better in those situations?" Ferentz said. "That's what we're focused on. It comes down to a lot of little details and giving ourselves a chance. ... The reality is we were pretty good from October 2008 to November 2010. I look at it more that way. I'm not a peak-and-valley person. You can't afford to be if you're a coach."

Iowa appeared to go through some valleys in the offseason as several off-field issues cropped up followed by 13 players being hospitalized in January with rhabdomylosis. The team's celebrated strength program came under fire, but an internal investigation found no specific cause for the hospitalizations and Iowa has moved forward.

"We handled the rhabdo situation very well," Herman said. "Everybody was more pulled together as [the criticism] was coming down on us. It's going to benefit us in the fall for sure."

Iowa has its share of uncertainty entering the fall. Can quarterback James Vandenberg steady the ship after a gutsy performance in relief of Stanzi in 2009? Can Daniels and Binns help the defensive line reload? Who fills the gaps at safety, linebacker and wide receiver?

To these questions, the Hawkeyes say ask away. They'll have answers when September rolls around.

"You've got 11 guys on the field who are just mad at the world," Daniels said. "That's the way we would like to play."