Leistikow: At media day, Iowa football deals with mixed bag of season expectations
IOWA CITY — One of the biggest storylines of the Iowa football off-season had more to do with credit-card swipes than tweaks to the offensive playbook.
A full month before the Sept. 3 season opener against South Dakota State, it was announced that every seat in 69,250-seat Kinnick Stadium was sold out for all seven home games this season. That first for the program since 2011 was not lost on Hawkeye players at the team’s media day Friday.
"The Hawkeye fans need to know we appreciate it," said Jack Campbell, the all-business, preseason all-American linebacker.
During Iowa’s 12-0 run in 2015, one early-season game drew just over 56,000. Even after Iowa improved to 7-0 that year, the next home game against Maryland drew less than 63,000. That’s nothing to sneeze at in many places. But even amid a record-breaking season, Hawkeye fans weren’t swarming to Kinnick like they are now.
Excitement is high among the Iowa fan base entering the 2022 season. And so are the expectations. This is a team that won the Big Ten West Division title last season and is bringing a ton of talent back, especially on the defensive side of the football.
Iowa’s No. 1 team goal every year is to win a Big Ten championship. Getting to the title game last year — albeit one that resulted in a 42-3 loss to Michigan — has good and bad sides for this year’s team.
“We know what it takes to get there,” defensive tackle Noah Shannon said. “I think that was good for our preparation this year. We can take the things from last year, learn from them and hopefully implement them for this year.”
A lot of teams are circling the Hawkeyes as a must-beat opponent, and their schedule looks tougher than it did last year. Not only would Iowa State (coming to Kinnick on Sept. 3), Minnesota (up north on Nov. 19) and Nebraska (here for the season finale Nov. 25) love to end long series losing streaks in trophy games vs. Iowa, Big Ten powerhouses Michigan (Oct. 1 here) and Ohio State (Oct. 22 there) are on the docket. And let’s not even bring up the sore subjects of Purdue and Wisconsin on back-to-back early-November Saturdays.
Maybe that’s part of the reason those outside our state’s borders aren’t believing in these Hawkeyes. Earlier this week, Iowa — a team that’s finished in the national top 25 four straight years — was unranked in the preseason coaches’ poll. The consensus among more than half of FBS coaches (66) was that Iowa isn’t among the best 25 teams in college football. Las Vegas oddsmakers are in agreement on the Hawkeyes being a seven- or eight-win team; their over/under win total was set at 7.5. ESPN's FPI metric has Iowa with 6.7 wins.
Maybe the outsiders will be right.
But I suspect the insiders think they’ll be wrong.
Internally, Hawkeye players are confident in their program, which has produced 10 wins in each of the last two full seasons (2019, 2021) and might have had its best team in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign (6-2).
But while confident, they also are reminded that last year's record means nothing for this year's team. (Preseason No. 17 Indiana last year, for example, went 2-10 and failed to win a Big Ten game.)
“Our head coach (Kirk Ferentz) does a great job (saying), quite frequently, that none of that matters,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras. "... Because everyone right now is undefeated. Everyone is bigger, stronger, faster than they’ve ever been. Every quarterback looks outstanding in drills. Every receiver is Calvin Johnson. Every lineman is Robert Gallery.
"That’s great. But we’ll see when the lights come on and the bullets are flying. We feel good about where we stack up.”
(Pause and take a moment to appreciate what an insightful quote that is.)
And hey, give credit to you the Hawkeye fans. You turned out last season to absolutely befuddle fourth-ranked Penn State in a top-five showdown. Tight end Sam LaPorta said he’s “never been a part of something like” Penn State committing back-to-back-to-back false starts because Iowa fans roared so loudly with their team down, 17-10.
“You just don’t see it anywhere else. Our fans are eight yards away from the field, and they’re just absolutely on top of the (opponents),” LaPorta said. “They’re the loudest. They’re the happiest. We always try to put on a good show for them, and they always show up for us.”
Added Campbell: “They have such an impact on the game. The noise they make, the momentum they can create. It’s just so huge. I feel like people on the outside don’t realize that.”
Major home-field advantage, Iowa, in seven home games ahead.
That doesn't mean Iowa's going 7-0 at home. But players relish knowing they’ve got most of 69,250 in their corner come September as they grind through 90-degree practices in August. (And, believe me, the sun-baked practice fields are even hotter.)
"It’s part of why I came here, I love getting an opportunity to walk out of the tunnel, 70,000 fans and ‘Back in Black,’” future star defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness said. “But again, as a team, we’re doing the dirty (work) in the dog days of camp right now. And we’re not even focused on the season. We’re focused on improving."
Though Ferentz scoffed at the importance of the coaches’ poll in his media day news conference Friday, something tells me he is just fine with the Hawkeyes being outside the top 25 when he arrives at practice each day.
Never hurts to remind your players that they haven’t arrived. Yet.
As Petras said, if you believe media-day quotes across college football, every single team in America is going to take the world by storm this year.
That message is delivered and received at Iowa.
"The miniscule differences between wins and losses is something that goes completely over the head of the average fan,” LaPorta said. “Unless you’re in the building as a player or a coach … and you get to witness what makes a game a win or a loss, it’s just crazy to be a part of that. To see the little differences that you put on the practice field that makes the difference on Saturdays.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.