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The Hawkeye junior has been a part of two 8-5 seasons in college, but is hoping to take a step forward in 2018. Chad Leistikow, cleistik@dmreg.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s still a tad early to say we’ve reached the dog days of college football’s offseason.

But it’s a crucial time nonetheless.

For Iowa, here’s one thing that’s producing much-needed urgency during the weight-lifting and conditioning program that got rolling last week: The Big Ten Conference opener is just over three months away: Sept. 22 vs. Wisconsin.

“They’re the stepping stone of the West,” Hawkeye center Keegan Render said. “Every day, (coaches) remind us. They’re training up there, too, to beat us. That’s some motivation right there.”

Render was among a batch of Hawkeye players who conducted media interviews Tuesday afternoon. While they weren’t looking ahead to Game 4 of the 2018 schedule, you know that it’s been brought to their attention that nobody is picking Iowa to be a significant Big Ten factor this fall.

Quarterback Nate Stanley, who is from Wisconsin, side-stepped a question about going home and hearing about the prohibitive Big Ten West favorites.

But they know.

They know all the preseason love is going Wisconsin’s way. And that’s no surprise, with the Badgers bringing back almost every key piece from last year’s team that went 13-1 (and drubbed the Hawkeyes, 38-14, in Madison).

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Iowa offensive lineman Keegan Render discusses being one of a small group of (11) scholarship seniors on the 2018 Hawkeye football team. Chad Leistikow, cleistik@dmreg.com

It was much the same status that Iowa held going into the 2016 season, after the Hawkeyes had completed a magical 2015 run to the brink of the College Football Playoff and brought back quarterback C.J. Beathard, cornerback Desmond King and linebacker Josey Jewell.

(News flash: Iowa didn’t win the West in 2016; Wisconsin did.)

Bottom line: The Hawkeyes are off the college football radar this summer.

You’ll have to do a lot of hunting to find a preseason top 25 that includes Iowa. USA TODAY, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, Athlon, The Sporting News … none of them list Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes.

Iowa checks in at No. 25 in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), but that's about it for trying to find a sliver of national love. 

Iowa’s last two seasons, since that record-setting 12-2 campaign of 2015: 8-5 and 8-5.

Neither season ended with a top-25 ranking.

Render called 8-5 for Iowa “average” and “not terrible.”

(Safe to say, those adjectives weren’t the stated team goals.)

“It’s like, ‘so what?’ There are a lot of 8-5 teams out there,” Render said.

If you’re a Hawkeye fan, those are the quotes you like to hear in June.

You want to hear hungry Hawkeyes.

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Iowa’s last two 8-5 seasons are probably best remembered for scintillating wins as three-touchdown underdogs — 2016 against then-No. 3 Michigan on a last-second kick, 2017 against then-No. 3 Ohio State in a 55-24 never-to-be-forgotten shellacking.

But players look at the past differently.

Stanley, a first-year quarterback on last season's team, saw missed potential.

“We know we should have, realistically, had three more wins,” said Stanley, whose junior-year performance will have a big say in the Hawkeyes’ 2018 fortunes. “Some people might think it was just one play. But it was really the whole game, where we didn’t play as well as we should have.”

Still stuck in the craw of Render is a home loss to 11-win Penn State on the game’s final play; and an overtime loss at 10-win Northwestern. The Hawkeyes also had a seven-point loss at 10-win Michigan State and a flat home loss against Purdue.

Tough schedule. Missed opportunity. Inconsistency.

Eight and five.

“Last year we were up and down quite a bit, and that doesn’t just come from the games,” Stanley said. “It comes from practice, too. Really, bringing consistency into our practices and our workouts will carry into the games.”

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Iowa's fifth-year senior defensive end discusses leadership that's developing, and what he saw from the 2015 Hawkeyes. Chad Leistikow, cleistik@dmreg.com

If the 2018 Hawkeyes are going to make media outside our state’s border take notice, they’ll have to get it done with youth. There are only 11 scholarship seniors, and one of them (linebacker Aaron Mends) is recovering from a torn ACL.

It’s a small veteran group that reminded one of this season's few fifth-year seniors about what made the 2015 Hawkeyes excel — blue-collar guys like Austin Blythe, Jordan Canzeri, Jordan Lomax, Macon Plewa and Travis Perry taking charge of the locker room.

“That’s kind of the standard, at least in my experience, for leadership,” defensive end Parker Hesse said. “And they did it together as a group. That was what made them really special.”

Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle once told me they were more scared than optimistic heading into that 2015 season. It’s way too early to know how this team will evolve, how the culture will develop or how the bounces will go once the games kick off.

But it's safe to say that, as summer conditioning plows ahead, these Hawkeyes are grinding ahead with plenty of motivation — and the desire to far exceed "not terrible."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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