IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Like every other resident of this state, Kirk Ferentz watched in amazement last month as Northern Iowa shocked Kansas in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
But when the final horn sounded and Panther pandemonium began, Ferentz took notice of the crushed Kansas players leaving the court. He turned toward his wife, Mary.
"That could have been us last September," he told her.
It took two blocked field goal attempts as time expired for Iowa's football team to survive a season-opening scare against those very same Northern Iowa Panthers on Sept. 5 at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes escaped 17-16 and went on to win their next eight games -- the 9-0 start marked the best in team history -- before capping an unforgettable season with an Orange Bowl championship.
How would things have changed had the Northern Iowa kick sailed through? Or if Ricky Stanzi's pass to Marvin McNutt at Michigan State had been batted down? Or if Adrian Clayborn hadn't blocked the punt at Penn State? Or if Michigan could have engineered one more scoring drive? Or if Tyler Sash hadn't snared that pinball interception against Indiana and raced 86 yards for a game-changing touchdown?
These are the questions Ferentz and his Iowa players ask themselves. They're healthy questions. They're questions that keep a team grounded throughout a season on the edge, and heading into another season where expectations are already sky high.
"We may have been close to the Rose Bowl, but we were also close to no bowl," Ferentz said. "You could cite five or six games where it was just basically a coin toss which team was going to win. So, yeah, we were 11-2 last year, but we very easily could have been 5-7 or 7-5.
"Expectations, those are for fans and for media people. They don't have to go out and compete. The guys that line up and play, they realize going in that it's tough to win."
Iowa will be picked to win a lot in 2010.
The Hawkeyes return 16 starters from the Orange Bowl squad, including first-team All-Big Ten defenders Clayborn and Sash, as well as Stanzi, who owns an 18-4 record in two seasons as the starting quarterback. After surviving a brutal road schedule last fall, Iowa will play most of its toughest opponents at Kinnick Stadium this season, including dates with both Ohio State and Wisconsin. Iowa must reload on the offensive line and replace two first-team All-Big Ten players on defense (linebacker Pat Angerer and cornerback Amari Spievey), but the team has few obvious weaknesses.
A top-10 preseason ranking is likely, and the buzz already is starting to build around the Hawkeyes.
"We were so close [in 2009], and we let two games slip away from us," defensive tackle Karl Klug said. "That's the difference between the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl.
"Ultimately, that is the goal: to get to the Rose Bowl."
To reach Pasadena for the first time since 1991, Iowa must maintain the poise it displayed throughout last season, especially in pressure situations.
The Hawkeyes had nine wins by 12 points or fewer and four by three points or fewer. They endured second-half deficits in five of their first nine games. They outscored opponents 121-62 in the fourth quarter and tallied 50 more points in the fourth than in any other quarter.
Ferentz often talks about Iowa's small margin for error and its likelihood of ending up in close games, but he called last year's constant pressure cooker "above the norm."
"You can't sit there and expect to win games by three or four touchdowns," Stanzi said. "We don't expect that, and that's why when we're in close games, that's the way we've been trained to think. If you're in close games, you're going to have to win with last-second efforts or with good defensive stands.
"That's football, especially here. That's just how it is."
No player symbolized Iowa's 2009 team quite like Stanzi. He rarely made it easy, throwing 15 interceptions, four of which were returned for touchdowns, but in crunch time, there was no better quarterback in the Big Ten, or perhaps the country.
Stanzi made reducing interceptions his No. 1 priority this spring. If he can limit mistakes, maintain his fourth-quarter brilliance and get enough time from the offensive line to survey the field, Iowa's offense should surge this fall. Combine that with a defense led by one of the nation's best fronts, and Iowa might not be sweatin' it out as much in 2010.
"Our goal is to put teams away," Klug said, "not just hang in there."
But if the pressure's on late in games, Iowa will be ready.
"Penn State, that could have went either way," Clayborn said. "The bowl game could have went either way, with an interception or a missed tackle. We had a lot of close games, but now we know what it takes, so we're going to work even harder."