Iowa plays five games in September: one against a directional Michigan team, one against UNI, one against Iowa State, one against Minnesota, and one against Northern Illinois. In Iowa's last meetings with teams that fit those descriptions, they lost every game except the encounters with UNI (though Iowa needed not one, but two blocked field goals to eke out a win) and Northern Illinois (who Jake Christensen managed to beat not once, but twice as Iowa's starting quarterback). And yet there's reason to think that Northern Illinois might be the scariest game on the September schedule.
WHY IT MIGHT BE THE TOUGHEST GAME
1) The experts like Northern Illinois.
The football intelligentsia are breaking down every team in the FBS and ranking them from 1 all the way down to 124. Two of the better college football pundits, Paul Myerberg at Pre-Snap Read and SBN's own Bill Connelly at Football Study Hall, have managed to rank most of the top 124, and their rankings for Iowa's September opponents looks like this:
No, Iowa isn't playing itself. I just thought you might wonder where Iowa stood in relation to their opponents. Probably a little closer to Northern Illinois than you wanted to see, right? No ranking system is infallible, but Myerberg and Connelly didn't just pull these numbers out of a hat; they arrived at them after expending considerable brainpower on the topic. There's a rationale behind these rankings and that rationale suggests that Northern Illinois won't be a pushover.
2) It's the first game of the season.
Here's a list of the teams Iowa has played in their season opener over the last decade: Akron, Miami (OH), Kent State, Ball State, Montana, Northern Illinois, Maine, UNI, Eastern Illinois, and Tennessee Tech. Not exactly Murderer's Row. Those teams had a combined record of 64-56 -- and over one-third of those wins came from two teams, 2003 Miami (the Big Ben team) and 2006 Montana (who went 12-2 and made it to the FCS semifinals). The last time Iowa played an opponent from a BCS conference in their opener was 2000, when Kansas State beat them, 27-7. Since then it's been a never-ending supply of MACrifices and FCS squads.
And even against that mostly meager slate of opponents, Iowa hasn't always dominated. Since annihilating a suspension-ravaged Ball State team in 2005, Iowa has not exactly had their way with their season opening opponent. Last year, Tennessee Tech gained almost 300 yards and Iowa needed big scoring plays from Marvin McNutt (88-yard touchdown pass) and Shaun Prater (89-yard interception return) to jumpstart their performance. In 2010, Iowa needed a Paki O'Meara blocked punt to open the (relative) floodgates. In 2009... well, I think we remember just how wild and woolly the UNI game was that year. In 2007, Iowa ground out a miserably ugly 16-3 win over Northern Illinois at Soldier Field. The Iowa-Montana game was just 17-7 over halfway through the third quarter; it took a late flurry of Iowa points to provide the comfortable-looking 41-7 final scoreline. The 2008 game with Maine was essentially an Iowa romp from the first minute, but even in that game Iowa needed three fourth quarter touchdowns to produce the impressive-looking 46-3 final scoreline.
Even setting aside Iowa's general meh-ness in season openers, this Iowa team is dealing with an usually high level of turnover. They're breaking in two new coordinators, four-fifths of the offensive line is new(ish), the running backs are virtually all new (same as ever), and the defensive line is loaded with new faces. That's a lot of new moving pieces to get in working order on day one.
3) It's not at home.
The last time Iowa opened the season somewhere other than Kinnick Stadium? 2000, when Iowa played Kansas State at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. As we already covered earlier -- that didn't go well. Of course, that Iowa team was a little talent-deficient and that K-State team went 11-3, barely lost the Big 12 Championship Game (to eventual national champion Oklahoma) and won the Cotton Bowl. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the 2012 Northern Illinois team won't be quite that good.
EDIT: Also, all of that? Not entirely true! As I was reminded in the comments, Iowa opened the 2007 season away from Kinnick -- against Northern Illinois, no less! -- and won, although not in particularly inspiring fashion.
On the other hand, playing away from the friendly confines didn't go so well for James Vandenberg and Iowa last year: 1-5, and only two of the losses were all that close. Vandenberg's road woes have been well-documented, but few players excelled on the road last year. Quite a change from the 2009 squad of road warriors that won in Happy Valley, Madison, and East Lansing. That needs to change this year. (On the bright side, I was in attendance for the lone win last year and I'm going to be in attendance for the NIU game, so clearly we'll be just fine.)
WHY IT MIGHT NOT BE THE TOUGHEST GAME
1) Northern Illinois lost quite a bit of talent... and their greatness may have been overstated.
Last year's NIU team was very, very good -- even in the MAC, you don't win 11 games by accident or coincidence -- but most of the main forces behind those wins are long gone. Chandler Harnish, the do-everything quarterback who amassed 4600 (!) yards of total offense? Trying to make it in the NFL. Their non-Harnish leading rusher? Gone. Their second-leading receiver? Gone. Four starting offensive linemen? Gone. They do return a fair number of starters on defense (eight)... but they weren't exactly a brick wall on that side of the ball. They ranked 85th in scoring defense (30.3 ppg), 72nd in rushing defense (167 ypg), and 89th in pass defense (248 ypg).
Furthermore, while NIU did win 11 games last year, none of them came against BCS opponents. They got hammered by Wisconsin, 49-7, and even got clipped by a pretty godawful Kansas team, 45-42. (The only other team Kansas beat last year was McNeese State.) They were a very good mid-major team last year, no doubt. But they weren't exactly one of the mid-major elites, either.
2) They're not Western Michigan.
Historically, Iowa is 18-2 against MAC teams. Those two losses have come against the same team -- Western Michigan. More of those 18 MACrifice wins have come against Northern Illinois than anyone else, too -- 7 wins, to be exact. Obviously nothing about that record guarantees a win for Iowa on September 1st -- the Iowa team and the NIU team that take the field that day will have nothing in common with their predecessors other than logos and laundry -- but still: Iowa usually does quite well against MAC teams. That's comforting.
3) Iowa's toughest opponent will be Iowa State or Minnesota.
As noted above, Pre-Snap Read and Football Study Hall don't think too highly of either the Cyclones or Gophers. But... our eyes suggest otherwise, right? Both Iowa State and Minnesota, um, beat Iowa last year. (Fuck.) Minnesota, in fact, has beaten Iowa twice in a row. (Fuuuuck.) Last year's win may have been a little more fluky (Iowa's red zone offense was comically inefficient), but still: two wins in a row is two wins in a row.
The odd blowout aside, Iowa State and Minnesota usually play Iowa pretty tough, too -- certainly tougher than Iowa's typical games against Northern Illinois (or MAC teams in general). We fondly remember games like 55-0 or the back-to-back 30-point drubbings Iowa laid on Iowa State in 2009 and 2010, but (much as we might hope otherwise) those results are not the norms in those series.
It's advantageous that Iowa gets both Iowa State and Minnesota in Iowa City (where Iowa hasn't lost to them since 2002 and 1999, respectively), but these are still teams with some talent (likely more than Northern Illinois at several positions), as well as teams that beat Iowa a year ago and that will play Iowa with an extra chip on their shoulder (I've never heard a "We hate Iowa" chant emanating out of DeKalb).
But what do you think? Which team is Iowa's toughest September opponent?