IOWA CITY, Iowa – With Iowa, there always seems to be a lingering question about respect.
Last season, many wondered if the Hawkeyes were good or just lucky.
Iowa finally silenced most of its critics with a 24-14 win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, capping just the second 11-win season in school history. Many of those victories were closer than expected or just downright ugly, but Iowa finished ranked No. 7 — its highest spot in the final poll since 1960.
With loads of returning talent and a favorable schedule, Iowa looks like it won't need much luck in 2010.
Iowa returns 15 starters, including senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi and senior defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State all have to visit Kinnick Stadium this fall.
Expectations are understandably sky high in Iowa City, and the Hawkeyes are determined to live up to them.
"We want that. That means something. That means we're doing something right," wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said. "Last year we snuck up on people. We (aren't) sneaking up on anybody this year."
Iowa has depth and experience at nearly every position, especially on defense. The only spots with major questions are running back and offensive line, where jobs will be up for grabs in fall camp.
The Hawkeyes have a rather unusual luxury at running back, with three sophomores who've already proven they're Big Ten-caliber talents.
Adam Robinson set a freshman school record with 834 yards rushing in 2009, and Brandon Wegher set Iowa's new rookie mark with eight rushing touchdowns. Jewel Hampton, who in 2008 set the touchdown mark Wegher broke, showed promise spelling star Shonn Greene before a knee injury kept him out last season.
Opening lanes for them will be a line that had to replace three starters, including star tackle Bryan Bulaga. Coach Kirk Ferentz is confident the line will be fine, but Iowa's offense could find itself struggling to score yet again.
For once, the Hawkeyes have a wealth of weapons at the skill positions. Johnson-Koulianos and converted quarterback Marvin McNutt should form a potent 1-2 punch at wide receiver, and Stanzi's credentials as a winner can't be questioned despite throwing 15 interceptions last season.
The main reason everyone's so high on the Hawkeyes, though, is their defense.
Eight starters return from a unit that allowed just 15.4 points a game last season, including all four linemen on what could be the nation's top defensive line. Clayborn is a projected first-round pick who earned MVP honors in the Orange Bowl. End Broderick Binns and tackles Karl Klug and Christian Ballard excel at stuffing the run and flustering quarterbacks.
The Hawkeyes did lose a pair of NFL draft picks at linebacker in Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, but the coaching staff is confident that junior Tyler Nielsen and senior Jeff Tarpinian can pick up where those two left off. The secondary will be led by strong safety Tyler Sash and free safety Brett Greenwood, who earned All-Big Ten honors last season.
It's easy to forget how much heat Ferentz took during the program's brief dip into mediocrity in 2006-07, but Iowa's upset win over Penn State two years ago kicked off a resurgence. Iowa is 15-2 in its last 17 games, and the Hawkeyes haven't lost a game Stanzi has started and finished in nearly two years.
Ferentz is cautiously optimistic about Iowa's chances this fall, but he also knows better than anyone that the Hawkeyes don't have much room for error.
"You never win a championship, no team does, I don't think, in team sports without great leadership," Ferentz said. "That's first and foremost, and you have to have some great stories along the way."