Pundits don't know what to make of them.
Do they ever? They're an enigma wrapped in a mystery tied off with confusion.
Back in June, Pete Fiutak's crew previewed Iowa saying, "The team will be more than fine." In July, Bill Connelly also previewed the Hawks, indicating—with almost scientific detail—how they'll take steps back.
The USA Today preseason coaches poll has Iowa sitting outside the Top 25, but only barely. Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook (via ESPN.com) says a lot about Iowa, but stops short of making any kind of predictive analysis.
So, some say they will be good, others say they won't and still others prefer to take the safe route and throw up a decisive "maybe."
Can you blame them?
Even Kirk Herbstreit acknowledged a couple years ago that every time he starts to get excited about Iowa (in the preseason), they blow it. Then again, every time you start to think they're going to be "blah," they pleasantly surprise.
Don't fret, Iowa fans—don't get too comfortable either.
Check out virtually any national/conference power ranking or preview, and you'll find fans who want to argue with the author. "Yeah, we've lost so-and-so, but we have this guy stepping in. We'll be better than ever!"
Iowa fans are no different, really. Tell a Hawkeye fanatic that Iowa will suffer from the loss of QB Ricky Stanzi, and you'll hear how well his replacement, James Vandenberg, did against Ohio State in 2009.
Tell them how much their offense will take a step backward without Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Allen Reisner, and you'll hear how Marvin McNutt was the leading receiver last year, how there is a trio of quality tight ends and how RB Marcus Coker will be the focus of the offense to boot.
Tell them that the defensive line can't possibly be as good without Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. You'll be reminded that Mike Daniels made a splash, Broderick Binns returns and the coaching staff is really excited about some of the guys vying for the remaining positions.
Lost some good linebackers? Not to worry, James Morris made a name for himself as a freshman, and Tyler Nielsen is healthy and ready to be a beast.
Oh yeah, and on top of all of that, the offensive line (the heart and soul of the offense) should be better than just about any in the Kirk Ferentz era.
Those are just fans though, right?
I mean, they're not experts. They didn't play the game. They haven't spent decades learning the nuances of effective strategy at the shoulders of greats.
Surely, they couldn't know as much about their team as people who spend their every waking moment studying the game and the trends that accompany it.
Au contrare, Mon Ami.
Polls like the coaches poll come to their rankings (particularly preseason rankings) via "snapshots" taken of the teams. They look at the previous season's record, who they lost to, how many starters they return and how they played against tough opponents.
They don't delve too deeply into the replacements that don't have strong statistical indicators to base an opinion on. Certainly, they don't go back and watch film of every game that every team played to catch some snippet of evidence as to how the new faces will perform in the coming year.
People like Fiutak and Connelly may dig a bit deeper. They have the time (seeing how they're not trying to prepare a team for a grueling upcoming season or recruit players for future years), and it serves their purpose to know a little bit about the guys who were once benchwarmers.
Still, the majority of what they base their opinions on comes from stat sheets and/or talking to people who may have had the opportunity to catch a few games here and there. It's not as if they watch every game either and not as if they can remember the guy's name who stepped in for this guy on a couple of occasions over the years.
Fans know, though. They've seen guys like Mike Daniels or LeBron Daniel take the field. They remember the few opportunities where Keenan Davis shined. They know what "could be," if only everything works out as anticipated.
On the other hand though, fans are unabashedly biased. They see a great play by a youngster against Northern Iowa and firmly believe said youngster will one day be a household name.
Iowa fans want to believe wholeheartedly that Daniels will be the next Mitch King, only better. They want to believe Davis or Kevonte Martin-Manley will be the next McNutt, only flashier. They absolutely have to believe that Vandenberg—Iowa native—will be the next Stanzi, only without the interceptions that plagued his early career.
And so, just as the pundits will downplay a team like Iowa's potential based on a lack of evidence, fans tend to over-hype their team based on what they want to believe, which is based on incomplete evidence.
Where does this leave Iowa coming into the 2011 season?
Making matters worse, Iowa's recent history has been spotty in both good and bad ways.
On the one hand, Iowa was supposed to be in transition heading into 2008. They turned in a 9-4 record that included an Outback Bowl victory over South Carolina.
They followed that up with a 2009 campaign—which was still supposed to be questionable without Shonn Greene carrying the offensive work load—that saw 11 wins and a BCS Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
On the flip side though, Iowa was supposed to be something truly special in 2010. They returned a ton of starters from that Orange Bowl team, including Stanzi, Clayborn and RB Adam Robinson. The Hawkeyes were early favorites as the ones to knock off Ohio State for the conference title and were many pundits' dark horses for a shot at the national title.
Instead, they pulled down a very pedestrian 8-5 record that included a three-game slide in November and was only salvaged by an Insight Bowl victory over 10-2 Missouri.
Maddening, isn't it?
Look back throughout the Kirk Ferentz tenure at Iowa, and you'll see much of the same. In years they aren't supposed to compete, they do. In years where they're favorites to contend, they don't.
Once again, Iowa is an enigma. What will they really bring to the table in 2011? Where do you rank them?
In the end, I agree with the coaches poll (for once). Iowa received more justice than I expected from a group that notoriously undervalues the Hawkeyes, in my opinion.
They're not in the Top 25, nor should they be. With the amount of losses they sustain, no one in their right mind would put this group among the elite teams in America.
There's virtually zero statistical data to show the Hawkeyes belong near the top, save one: Iowa has had just two losing seasons since 2000, and one of those was only Ferentz's second year as coach.
Their win/loss total over that time span ranks 22nd in the nation (.637, tied with BYU).
However, they're not far outside of the Top 25 either. Receiving 41 points, Iowa comes in at No. 30 on the poll, putting them well within striking distance of gaining entry early in the season.
That "ranking" gives Iowa respect based on what they've done in the recent past, while at the same time acknowledging that there is enough turnover that they shouldn't have high expectations. It says, "They're not that great," while at the same time stating, "This is Iowa, and we could be wrong."
What to do with Iowa? Just enjoy the season. The very best minds in the business (not that they're listed here) steam at the ears when trying to predict what this group will do. They're a mystery—a shadow in the night.
The Hawkeyes could turn out to be something incredibly dangerous. Then again...