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Ihmir Smith-Marsette talks about the hurdle at the end of his kickoff return. What did he think of his form? Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s recent history as a ranked football team is proof of the fickle nature of athletic success.

In 2016, the Hawkeyes entered the season ranked after finishing 12-2 the year before. Iowa rose to 13th in the Associated Press poll after pummeling Iowa State in Week 2.

Then North Dakota State came to town and provided a humbling exit from the rankings, at least until the final week of that season. The Hawkeyes climbed to 21st after a Black Friday demolition of Nebraska, only to fall flat in an Outback Bowl loss to Florida.

Last year, Iowa was ranked for all of one week, entering the AP poll at No. 25 after a stirring home upset of Ohio State. The next Saturday brought a one-sided loss at Wisconsin. Iowa ended the 2016 and ’17 seasons outside the rankings of the writers (AP) and coaches (USA Today).

Don’t look now, but the Hawkeyes are ranked again after a strong 5-1 start that most recently included an impressive 42-16 road victory over Indiana. Iowa is 22nd in the coaches’ poll, 19th in the AP.

What’s more, national accolades have been pouring in for quarterback Nate Stanley (six touchdown passes Saturday) and tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson (a combined 209 receiving yards and three TDs). It’s the first real deluge of media attention the Hawkeyes have received this season.

How the players respond to it Saturday when Maryland (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten Conference) comes to Kinnick Stadium (11 a.m., ESPN2) will be a sign of their maturity. The Hawkeyes are a relatively young team, led by 13 seniors.

“It’s not going to make the opponent any easier to beat,” said left guard Ross Reynolds, one of those seniors.

“If anything, it’s going to be harder.”

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That was a common sentiment among Hawkeye players who spoke to reporters Tuesday. The older the player, the less they wanted to talk about heightened expectations, national acclaim or the cosmic significance of being a ranked college football team.

“Don’t pay attention to it,” senior defensive tackle Sam Brincks said, dismissing the question the second it was posed. “It’s not important right now.”

Being ranked is a positive sign for a football team, of course. It’s a reflection of the Hawkeyes’ impressive body of work through half a season. The offense has put up 90 points in its past two games, both on the road. The defense has held three teams (Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Indiana) to their lowest point totals of the season.

That’s all fun stuff for fans to talk about. But the players, as you can imagine, want no part of it.

The Hawkeyes are certainly aware of what the polls say. They’re also aware of how quickly a team can plummet if its concentration wavers.

“I’m not going to act like we’re 19th in the nation. I’m going to go out there and act like we’re still 26th, 27th, 30th, last,” sophomore wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said.

“Once you get into the hearing of, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re ranked now, you’re 19th, you’re moving up a lot. You’re making progression. … Wow, we can slack off. We know we can make up for it. We’re ranked now.’ Nah, that’s not the case. We’re going to continue to play like we’re not ranked. That’s how it is. That’s how I want it to continue to stay.”

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Tight end T.J. Hockenson, a redshirt sophomore, said rankings and awards are never part of the conversation in Iowa’s practice facility.

“I don’t even know how many teams went out from the top 25 this last week (it was three),” Hockenson said. “You can’t pay attention to that stuff, especially in October. It’s way too early for that.”

This is undoubtedly exactly what Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wants to hear. He said Tuesday the personality of his team was “kind of bland” back in April. But he felt things changing over the course of summer practices.

“I haven't seen any cases of ego setting in,” Ferentz said. “Those are the kinds of things that get teams off the track sometimes.”

Ferentz said that’s a testament to a small but tight-knit senior class.

“I feel really good about these 13 guys moving on into the real world. They're going to do a nice job. They're a quality group of guys,” he said.

They’re also a ranked group of guys for the first time. Now, they get to determine for how long, and how high they can climb.

 

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