Analyzing how Iowa football avoids a mental letdown Saturday and beyond, as national spotlight grows
IOWA CITY — Although coaches are often natural worriers who mentally cycle through even the most outlandish scenarios, it's a safe bet no one associated with Iowa football thought 2021's tasks would include handling all that comes with being the nation's No. 2-ranked team.
It would've been a bit presumptuous to spend time on something that, previously, had never occurred in Kirk Ferentz's lengthy tenure — and hadn't happened to the program overall in nearly four decades. Yet here the Hawkeyes (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten Conference) are, adjusting to this spot and all it entails on the fly, knowing No. 2 status carries the same intensity for newbies as it does for the sport's elite.
After navigating through six emotional weeks where Iowa thrived on proving its worth to a skeptical audience, the Hawkeyes must now deliver that same edge each week with new elements in play. The first challenge arrives at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Purdue (3-2, 1-1), which will immediately test the Hawkeyes' ability to handle a ballooning spotlight.
On Iowa's side are the messages its football leaders have kept preaching long before this surge started. Piling up the seismic wins hasn't changed the Hawkeyes' tone, more so just confirmed the countless clichés thrown around the football building and beyond.
Only now, they aren't so tiresome.
"Take every opponent seriously, especially in the Big Ten."
No one's going to overlook a top-5 Penn State team or any of the other robust challenges Iowa has faced so far. Maintaining that focus is easy. But things shift during the back half of the Hawkeyes' schedule. There are currently no ranked matchups and likely won't be one over the next six games. The Hawkeyes, as they are Saturday, should be a solid favorite in each of them.
All that means, though? Up next are six teams looking to salvage mediocre seasons with one massive upset, which guarantees Iowa will get the strongest effort Purdue and the other five Big Ten West programs can muster up. Perhaps Iowa's experience in such a role — see Michigan in 2016, Ohio State in 2017 — will help the Hawkeyes now that they're in the vulnerable position.
"If you do have success, there’s going to be more attention," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week, "and I think they understand that and get that concept. Really what it all gets back to is just trying to do your best to get ready during the course of the week and then being ready to go at kickoff. Anything can happen.
"Last week was really the first week where it became a little bit of that circus atmosphere. And if we do have success down the road, that will increase and we’ll have to deal with it and learn to deal with it. But it still gets down to the game. That’s the critical thing."
"Practicing at a championship level"
That phrase, or some variety of that, came up plenty this week, too. Well, Iowa can now see those championship lights, both in the conference and around the country, gleaming brighter with each successful conquer. Even one regular-season loss would still likely give Iowa a division title and a playoff shot with a Big Ten Championship Game win.
That's as much championship destiny Iowa has controlled this far into the season since last winning the division in 2015. The Hawkeyes' efforts for championship-level preparation no longer requires dangling a far-fetched scenario out in front.
"Championship teams practice like championship teams. They condition and train like championship teams before they are championship teams. You can't just flip that switch when you're doing well," defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. "In fact, you won't get to that point unless you're performing like that. Obviously, (being ranked No. 2) is not something we foresaw or something we planned on. But we've played ourselves into a good position, and from this point, every game is just going to get more important."
"Avoiding outside noise"
That's another coach favorite, although Iowa's current quest has generated a different chatter theme. While plenty nationally still question the Hawkeyes' legitimacy as a highly ranked squad, those supporting black and gold have unsurprisingly cranked up the praise throughout every avenue possible.
Iowa's players realize this can be as detrimental as nagging critiques, if not more problematic, when handled poorly. It's easy to find motivation when negativity starts spewing. But can you remain on course when everyone is saying how great you are?
"It's so easy to get into that trap of listening to people say, 'Oh, you're really good and you're the best,'" linebacker Jack Campbell said. "Because then you start to cut corners. So all us have been really trying to uphold that standard.
"We're not going to stop watching x-amount hours of film a day just because we're winning. Or, we're not going to watch any less film because of the team coming in, stuff like that. That's been something we've tried to focus on. We're not going to cut down on lifting because we had a hard game. And not taking on the aspect of, 'Oh, we're doing good so we can back off.' That's something we've been harping on — know what's worked that's got us here and continuing to do that."
Those elements will first culminate Saturday, as Iowa must successfully move on from an emotional Kinnick Stadium showdown to a very winnable game low on outside attraction. Purdue has troubled the Hawkeyes of late and would love nothing more than to stun a sold-out stadium with an epic upset. Iowa has to turn the page — hey, another coaching one-liner — if it wants this magical journey to keep chugging along.
So it goes at the top, whether you're ready or not.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.