Leistikow: Hawkeyes need to dominate, not survive, opener

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY – Cue “Back in Black.” Iowa football has officially returned.

Minutes after AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson’s recorded vocals are done booming from the Kinnick Stadium sound system, it’ll be time for the Hawkeyes to make a resounding entrance to the 2016 season.

The 15th-ranked Hawkeyes kick off the program's most-anticipated season since 2010 as a four-touchdown favorite in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m., ESPNU-televised game against Miami of Ohio.

Hawkeye fans are revved up after a 12-2 season, as they should be.

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Expectations have been stoked by the media. Just this week, CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd has Iowa as one of 18 teams capable of winning the national title; and ESPN’s Anthony Becht and Ed Cunningham separately picked the Hawkeyes to reach the College Football Playoff.

University of Iowa football players

Inside the Iowa Football Performance Center, bold goals are communicated – via signage (“The Road To Indianapolis Travels Through These Doors”) and word of mouth.

“Nothing changes: Win every game,” Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King says. “Win all the trophy games, and defend Kinnick. And change the result in Indianapolis.”

For eighth months, the focus has been about reversing losses in the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl. Hawkeye players have been diligent in reminding us they didn't go 12-0 last year.

“We want to get back those two games,” King says, “that we fell short on.”

Indicators coming from Hawkeye camp have been almost entirely positive.

Winter strength training was productive, they’ve said. Same with summer conditioning.

The winning culture established by 2015’s 21 seniors has remained strong, they’ve assured us.

The freshmen class has exceeded expectations, and you’ll probably see eight to 10 of them play Saturday.

And the most important player, quarterback C.J. Beathard, says he's the healthiest he’s been in 11½ months.

If all of that is true, the Hawkeyes should reassure us with a profound opening statement.

This season, and the Big Ten West, is for the taking.

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Of course, that’s what a lot of people thought in 2014, too, and in Week 2 the Hawkeyes were precariously trailing Ball State in the fourth quarter. Two late touchdowns rallied Iowa that Saturday to a 17-13 win, a temporary sigh of relief but a warning beacon of disappointment that was to come.

Saturday brings another below-average Mid-American Conference opponent into Kinnick. Miami of Ohio is a rebuilding team that wants to emulate Iowa’s physical style. But the RedHawks are still a season away, at least.

Iowa needs to play like the Bullies of the Big Ten. Blow the RedHawks off the ball, and blow them out.

The sour taste of what Stanford did to the Hawkeyes in Pasadena? Wash that out by building a 35-0 third-quarter lead, and rest Beathard's legs so they're fresh next week to run past Iowa State for the second straight year.

What's behind the solid starting lineup is one of this team’s biggest questions. There’s no better opponent on the schedule to develop depth for the long road ahead.

And there’s no disputing where the journey is designed to end up. The goal is not just to return to Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 3, but to hoist the Amos Alonzo Stagg Trophy after dispatching Ohio State or Michigan or Michigan State.

A dominant performance against Miami would serve as a much-anticipated step in validating that as a possibility.

“Our goal is to win a Big Ten championship,” left tackle Cole Croston says, “and the first step on that path is beating Miami of Ohio on Saturday.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.