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Make HawkCentral.com your home for the best Iowa football coverage. Rodney White

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IOWA CITY, Ia. – What do NCAA deregulation, the TaxSlayer Bowl and Hamburger Helper have to do with 2015 Iowa football optimism? Keep reading.

The story begins with more than $55 million that was spent constructing the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center. The facility, a 178,000-square-foot haven for player development, became fully functional this past winter.

That timing could be beneficial in rebounding from a 7-6 season in 2014 that fell short of expectations, both internally and externally. And it’s not just about the 23,000-square-foot weight room patrolled by Chris Doyle. Perhaps the biggest benefit is the relationships that are building inside the center’s walls.

When the NCAA deregulated food service for all Division I competitors (including walk-ons) in 2014, it allowed universities to feed their athletes. And for Iowa football, the brand-new All-American Room has become a place for banquet-style meals and newfound togetherness.

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The Iowa defensive back compares new and old mentality. Chad Leistikow

“In this new complex, coach really stresses eating with guys that you don’t necessarily hang out with on a regular basis,” said fourth-year Hawkeye junior defensive back Greg Mabin, who until this spring was like most of his teammates — primarily hanging out with members of his own position group. Now, Mabin says, he's befriended "a lot more people than I originally thought I would."

Head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday that the NCAA ruling has helped Iowa supply its players with healthier foods, “instead of having guys back eating Hamburger Helper and things that probably aren't as good or as nutritional for them.”

It’s not all about eating breakfast and dinner together. Senior wide receiver Tevaun Smith said a notable change in the new building is that guys from Nos. 1 to 99, freshmen to seniors, are branching out in the recreational area.

“Now there’s a pool table, a ping-pong table, video games, all these TVs you can be on. Guys are just here a lot more,” Smith said. “Sometimes, you’ll walk in and you’ll be with a guy you’ve never been with, but you guys are there, so you end up playing ping pong. It’s definitely helped kind of bring the team together.”

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The Hawkeyes start the season at home against surprising Illinois State. Rodney White | The Register

That’s nice. But how does that relate to what people inside and outside the building care about most? That would be improvement from 2014.

That’s where the TaxSlayer Bowl enters this narrative. The 45-28 loss to Tennessee was the epitome of Iowa’s defensive failures of last season. Iowa was defenseless against the younger, faster Volunteers until they took their foot off the gas up 42-7. It was a performance unbecoming to the Hawkeyes’ traditionally solid defense.

Mabin, who got benched during the bowl game, was asked Tuesday if Iowa’s defense would be better than what we saw in Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 2. His answer was a bit of an indictment of some underlying issues with the 2014 Hawkeyes.

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Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown preview Saturday's game versus Illinois State after speaking to players and coaches.

“We’re more of a team. Last year, we still had a good group of guys, but some of them might have been more individually based,” Mabin said. “This year, we’ve got a good group of guys that have a team-first mentality.”

And that led to the follow-up: What changed? Mabin’s answer was all about the relationships, which have grown through meals — and the building, where weight-room records have been falling left and right.

There’s definitely an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality permeating with the smell of scrambled eggs and potatoes in the morning. Does it mean Iowa will beat Illinois State in Saturday’s 11 a.m. season opener at Kinnick Stadium? We should know the answer around 2 p.m. Saturday.

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