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The Register's Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown preview the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — With a national ranking in front of its name and a 5-0 record in parentheses after it, Iowa finds itself surrounded by an opportunity for a special football season.

But to call this a surprise, the players say, isn’t accurate — even after last year’s disappointing 7-6 record.

“The coaches from the beginning said this is going to be a special year,” senior defensive end Nate Meier said. “And everyone kind of bought into that. Now we are seeing 5-0, so yeah, it’s a lot more pressure. We’re here, and that’s where we want to stay.”

How the No. 22 Hawkeyes respond to the pressure will define their season, starting with Saturday’s 11 a.m. homecoming game against Illinois (4-1). As of Tuesday, Iowa had about 5,000 tickets remaining but was guaranteed to have a season-best attendance Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

The Hawkeyes are aware of increased interest and attention, including from opponents.

“We’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” right tackle Ike Boettger said.

Iowa obviously doesn’t want to be a quickly-forgotten flavor of the week. Fox Sports’ Stewart Mandel, who two years ago labeled Kirk Ferentz as one of the nation’s five worst coaches while at Sports Illustrated, now has Iowa projected to play in the Rose Bowl.

How quickly perceptions change. For Iowa, discipline is the best tool in dealing with newfound prosperity and continuing as a front-runner in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division.

“If we want to be playing in November in games that are really significant,” Ferentz said Tuesday, “one thing that we're going to have to do is have the ability to turn our attention quickly to our next opponent.”

It surprised Ferentz to realize that a beneficial turn-the-page-mechanism was the preseason shakeup in practice schedules. In Ferentz’s previous 16 years, Iowa made Monday its NCAA-mandated one off day per week. Now, it’s Thursday. Sunday is still reserved for strength and conditioning.

The Hawkeyes’ first on-field practice after games now comes Monday morning instead of Tuesday afternoon.

“That was not one of the by-products that we thought about (in switching to morning practices), but it really has proven to be,” Ferentz said. “Because you're right back to work. We're on the field Monday morning. So good, bad or indifferent, you’ve got to move on.”

As has been written throughout this 5-0 start, improved in-house leadership and unity has been attributed to Iowa’s success. That helps, too.

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The Iowa quarterback keeps a level head after Iowa's first national ranking since 2010.

Junior quarterback C.J. Beathard, now 6-0 as a starter after Iowa’s 10-6 win at Wisconsin, has been the poster child for that change. He's trying to keep his teammates' mindset on day-to-day disciplines and nothing more.

“I’ve got to stay on guys. Anybody can beat anybody in this league. You see that throughout college football,” Beathard said. “There’s no game you can overlook — no game at all. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. We’re 5-0 right now, but it doesn’t mean much.

"It means we’ve done a good job so far, but I feel like there’s so much more we can do. And we can get so much better.”

Center Austin Blythe understands this has become a season of opportunity — his last opportunity. This is the first time the Hawkeyes have been 5-0 in his five years, with a 26-25 overall combined mark in his first four.

The key to reaching 6-0 (and then 7-0 entering the bye week) is entrenched in his mind.

“Every week, you’ve got to realize you’re 0-0, or you’ve got to think of it that way, anyway,” Blythe said. “At the end of the week, you’ve got to be 1-0. That’s just the way we’re approaching every week.”

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The Iowa center is asked about 2015 being a season of opportunity.

NO. 22 IOWA (5-0, 1-0) VS. ILLINOIS (4-1, 1-0)

When, where: 11 a.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TV: ESPNU (Announcers: Clay Matvick and John Congemi)

The spread: Iowa by 11

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