Surrounded by league media this week, Kirk Ferentz was asked if he had noticed that most years, his Iowa football team is picked to finish mid-pack in the Big 10 Conference.
“Hopefully, yeah,” Ferentz replied with a smirk, “hopefully.”
The Omaha World-Herald’s Lee Barfknecht, who has covered too-many-to-count Big Ten Media Days in his fine career, had posed the question. Barfknecht knows the routine as it pertains to Iowa at this annual two-day event held in downtown Chicago.
The Hawkeyes are never the hot media attraction.
Even after the unbeaten regular season of 2015, almost all of Iowa’s late-July attention came from the home-state reporters.
“It just seems like there’s too much fascination with the bright, shiny objects at things like this,” Barfknecht said.
Before, it was Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.
This year, it was Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck.
“As far as Iowa goes, there probably won’t be as much excitement,” Barfknecht said. “But maybe from Kirk’s standpoint, that might be just fine.”
And it is.
Hence, the Ferentz smirk.
In the Cleveland.com preseason media poll in 2015, Wisconsin got 31 first-place votes out of 40 to win the Big Ten West, and Iowa was picked fourth with zero first-place votes.
Then roared Iowa to 12-0.
This year, Wisconsin (again) was the overwhelming favorite — with 32 first-place votes. Iowa (again) was picked fourth with zero first-place votes.
A sneaky-good sign?
On the outside, there are serious question marks with the Hawkeyes.
Gone is a quarterback who won 20 games in two seasons and was a third-round NFL Draft pick.
Decimated is the wide-receiver corps, with Ferentz only half-joking that he has a one-man rotation in senior Matt VandeBerg.
Uncertain is the secondary, with a Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback gone to the NFL and its best safety out with an ACL injury.
Shaken is the coaching staff, with three new hires plus a new offensive system under first-year coordinator in Brian Ferentz.
It was a rough go for the offense in spring ball — with the listed No. 1 QB, Nathan Stanley, unofficially completing 6 of 16 passes for 17 yards in the final scrimmage.
So, after two days in Chicago, I landed on a hypothesis.
The league and national media, as usual, is underthinking the Hawkeyes.
Perhaps the rest of us are overthinking them.
“When people see this program that is not recruiting in the top 10 of the country,” Fox Sports lead analyst Joel Klatt said, “that has a coach that is understated, and that plays a very throwback style of football that is predicated on good defense, ball control, doing the right things at the right time, it can feel non-exciting to the rest of the country, right?
“So when Iowa wins, they’re like, ‘Whoa, how are they doing it?'"
The Iowa approach — tough, smart, physical — lacks flash.
But there’s nothing new about that.
Iowa columnist Chad Leistikow offers records and insights for each of the Big Ten Conference's 14 teams. Wochit
It’s been that way for 18-plus years; some of which end up better than others.
Sometimes, you get 6-6 and a season-ending loss to Western Michigan.
Sometimes — 28 percent of the time, to be exact — it all comes together for Ferentz's Hawkeyes. Five of his 18 teams have finished in the national top 10.
And if you’re looking for a sign that this could be the next 2015 — where Iowa jumps up and surprises everyone — it’s best to look at what’s on the inside of each player on the depth chart, not just at the names on there.
On that front, the pre-fall camp signs seem encouraging.
“I really like this team,” Ferentz said, a statement worth noting and tucking away. “It’s been fun to work with these guys. I think I speak for our staff, they’ve been really good, from January on. They’ve had a good summer.”
The 2015 Hawkeyes won on the sum of its parts, not star power.
The 2017 Hawkeyes have one big name, linebacker Josey Jewell, and a lot of unknowns.
How do the two compare?
“Just all the little things you look for, the way the guys operated in the classroom last spring and this summer,” Ferentz noted. “They’ve been punctual, reliable, dependable, et cetera, going into learning-center appointments. All those little indicators you look for.”
Again, that’s not an exciting quote that’ll grab Big Ten or national headlines.
But that’s Iowa.
The Iowa linebacker was at his second straight media days. Chad Leistikow / The Register
I asked Jewell, the centerpiece on the team’s media guide and runner-up in the Clevleland.com poll’s defensive player-of-the-year voting, if being picked fourth in the Big Ten West behind Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska served as a motivator.
“Most of the guys on the team don’t really care what we get picked as,” the senior middle linebacker said. “If you want to use them for motivation, use them for motivation. Somebody saying you can’t do this; and having that negative turn into a positive.”
More than likely, this Iowa team is going to block well and play hard.
Even with its toughest schedule since 2013, it’ll probably find itself in a lot of close games.
It’ll probably win a game or two it’s supposed to lose, and lose one or two that it’s supposed to win.
But, maybe, just maybe, there's a little 2002 or 2009 or 2015 magic simmering, unnoticed, in Iowa City.
“Fortunately for us, they’re not always right,” Ferentz said of the preseason predictors. “Nobody was picking us in ’02 for sure, I know that. And it’s probably true just about every year.”
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.