I know, I know...it's way too early to be talking about 2010 when a majority of 2009's bowl games haven't even been played yet. But I'm not the only one.
Nationalchamps.net released its Early Bird Preview last week, and it ranks Iowa ninth in its first preseason poll. While the rankings are likely to fluctuate before next August, the Hawkeyes' preseason ranking shows promise for next season.
But Iowa's AP ranking will depend largely on the NFL decisions of two juniors: corner Amari Spievey and offensive tackle Brian Bulaga. Both have been rumored to be possible early exits from Iowa City and could be picked very high in the 2010 NFL draft if they decide to leave school.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper ranks Bulaga second out of all draft eligible junior tackles and Spievey fourth out of all draft eligible junior corners.
In the last decade, many more schools have had to deal with players leaving college early to pursue NFL careers. But Iowa has been relatively immune to the exodus.
Other than Shonn Greene and Dallas Clark, Iowa hasn't had many players decide to leave early, largely because of the types of players they recruit.
Many Iowa players are undersized, but their strength and determination make them terrific players in college. Players such as Pat Angerer and Mitch King have been All-Americans at Iowa, but are not top draft prospects due to their size.
But Spievey and Bulaga are different. Both have had excellent careers at Iowa, but unlike their teammates, they have the build and talent to be elite players at the next level.
Neither player will reveal his decision before Iowa's bowl game on Jan. 5, but they would still have time to declare before the Jan. 15 deadline. And we will undoubtedly see many more juniors declare in the next few weeks.
But why is leaving early from school so popular? After all players could always go to the NFL after their senior year. But the advantages are becoming more obvious by the year.
First, money is king in today's society, and a few million dollars from the NFL looks a lot better to players than another year of free school.
Second, as the game gets more and more physical, careers have been cut much shorter than they used to be. And with awful pensions, one more year is worth a lot of money to NFL players.
Third, the most common reason for players to leave early for the NFL is to make sure they don't risk a career ending injury in college. Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford's injury this year will likely increase the number of players who leave early in the future.
But not everyone sees it that way. Some see college as a way to improve fundamentals and become more mature before taking the next step. One such believer is Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker.
"There's a great deal of difference between high school football and college football, and there's a great deal of difference between college football and pro football," Parker said. "And if you get there too early, you're going to get eaten alive."
And while Parker may be a bit biased, one of his players took his words to heart. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was also rumored as a possible NFL candidate, with NFLDraftBible.com labeling him as a second or third round pick, but he opted to stay in school to gain some more experience.
"A lot of guys see the money and they run for it. I'm not too worried about that," Clayborn said. "I love college, I love Iowa, I can wait a year. I think I haven't proven things I need to prove at the college level."
One of his biggest influences was Shonn Greene, whom he talked to about the decision.
While Clayborn claims that Greene is happy in the NFL and wouldn't change his decision, Greene may have benefited from another year in college.
With no outstanding candidates this season, Greene would have been a Heisman lock if he had put up numbers even remotely close to his junior season.
He also could have helped guide the Hawkeyes to an undefeated season, as he would have certainly been a big boost after quarterback Ricky Stanzi was injured. The losses after the injury were very close and one would have to think those losses could have been wins if Greene was still at Iowa.
Was Greene NFL ready? Of course. He's a big back, a great asset in the physical NFL and would have been 24 years old, very old by college standards. But NFL ready doesn't always mean the NFL is a perfect fit.
"I think I could be ready for the NFL, but I just don't want to leave," said Clayborn. "I've still got stuff to prove. When I do that, then I'm leaving."
Hawkeye fans breathed a sigh of relief after Clayborn's announcement, and rightfully so. The 6'3", 282-pound defensive end was named first team All-Big Ten this season and will anchor arguably one of the best defensive lines in the nation in 2010. His announcement will certainly help Iowa's ranking, but Spievey and Bulaga pull a lot of weight as well.
If Spievey stays, he and safety Tyler Sash will anchor one of the nation's best defensive backfields, and he will certainly be in the running to be an All-American.
But Bulaga's NFL decision likely determines Iowa's ranking more than Spievey or Clayborn. With two offensive linemen already leaving because of graduation, Bulaga would be a huge benefit to the unit and the offense as a whole. The Hawkeyes wouldn't be in too much trouble since they normally produce a great offensive line no matter what, but Bulaga's presence would make the line an elite unit in 2010.
So what will Iowa be ranked in 2010? It's too early to tell. But Amari Spievey and Brian Bulaga will have a huge impact with their NFL decisions. And even though Jan. 15 is still eight months before the start of the season, we will know a lot more about the 2010 Iowa Hawkeyes by then.
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