Our long offseason nightmare is finally behind us. Northern Iowa comes to Kinnick Stadium to "kick off" (sport of football reference) the 2014 season. But who is this "Northern Iowa," really? Where is it? Does anyone really know? Here's what we can tell you.
Name: University of Northern Iowa Panthers
Location: Parts Unknown
Record: 7-5 (2013)
Ranking: 9th in 2014 preseason FCS poll
Passing: Sawyer Kollmorgen, 156-248, 1,824 yards, 14 TDs, 5 INTs (2013)
Rushing: David Johnson, 222 rushes, 1,291 yards, 10 TDs (2013)
Receiving: Kevin Vereen, 52 catches, 750 yards, 4 TDs (2013)
Tackles: Max Busher, 75 tackles (2013)
Tackles For Loss: Xavier Williams: 12.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks (2013)
Interceptions: Ray Mitchell, 4 INTs, 2 TDs (2013)
Here's the good news: Northern Iowa only went 7-5 last year, losing five straight in Missouri Valley play (including three straight OT defeats) and finishing far away from the FCS playoffs. This mediocrity, of course, did not stop UNI from beating Iowa State at Jack Trice in a game that didn't even resemble an upset. But we digress.
Here's the bad news: Iowa isn't playing 2013 UNI. It's got a date with 2014 UNI, and the (FCS) No. 9 Panthers look loaded for a strong season.
Virtually every offensive starter is back, with the main loss being All-MVFC offensive lineman Dan Kruger. Kruger's the only departing member of the starting OL, and LT Jack Rummells is "as good as a player as we've had here," per co-OC Bill Salmon.
The biggest weapon, though, is tailback David Johnson, whom Iowa only offered a grayshirt coming out of Clinton (IA) HS, per Marc Morehouse, and who has thrashed opposing defenses en route to first-team All-MVFC status. Think Iowa could have used a 6'3", 229-pound beastman with receiving skills out of the backfield over the last few years? Johnson has averaged almost 190 all-purpose yards in his four games against FBS foes, so Iowa partisans dismiss Johnson's success at their own peril.
I mean, just look at this guy's reel from last year. He's the real deal. He might be a motorcycle.
Note: there is limited swearing in this video's backing track, so don't turn the volume up around your boss or children, but some of Johnson's moves are just as NSFW.
Also, UNI welcomes back two quarterbacks with multiple starts in 2013: junior Sawyer Kollmorgen, who started all season before a concussion against Illinois State knocked him out for the year, and senior Brion Carnes, a Nebraska transfer who stepped in for Kollmorgen and promptly led the Panthers to three straight wins to close out the year. Expect Kollmorgen to maintain his starting role, but Carnes' versatility will likely get him some meaningful snaps against Iowa.
Kollmorgen's five favorite targets are all back. Vereen and senior WR Chad Owens led the way, combining for 112 catches, 1345 yards and nine touchdowns. They're not big-play downfield threats, but UNI doesn't need them to be.
That Iowa is replacing all its linebackers is likely welcome news for Kollmorgen and company, who ate Iowa State's vaunted LB corps for dinner last season with a steady game plan of quick underneath passes—historically a weak spot for Iowa's defenses even when there were, y'know, returning starters at LB.
Meanwhile, the Panther defense returns a host of playmakers, though graduation has been kinder to the Hawkeyes here than on offense. UNI's defensive line looks thin, although DT Xavier Williams is a borderline NFL prospect and will give Iowa's still-developing guards fits. He racked up over six tackles per game last year and 12 TFLs on the season, so expect to hear his name a few times on Saturday.
UNI's linebacking corps looks tough; MLB Max Busher has been productive enough to push Jake Farley to Will, and if both guys stay healthy the Panthers are in good shape. Also, I really hope Busher's middle initial is L, so he'd be MLB M.L.B. which means you can't retransmit any baseball images without his expressed written consent TWICE.
In the secondary. Jake Rudock will be tested by the CB duo of Makinton Dorleant and Deiondre' Hall, who combined for 12 passes defended last year, while FS Ray Mitchell took two picks back for touchdowns against WIU last year.
Look, Iowa should win this one. Top to bottom, the Hawkeyes are more talented, they're healthy and they're hungry. There's no Vegas line, but a spread of several touchdowns sounds about right.
But UNI's effectively good enough to compete in the MAC (like, right now), so this has the classic Iowa September "still a two-possession game midway through the third quarter and everyone's a bit nervous" game vibe to it. Still, Iowa has no business actually losing this one, all things considered. And yeah, it might be closer than you want, but there's not a great deal of correlation between the scores of Iowa's non-conference rinky-dinkers and how the Hawkeyes fare that year, so don't be disheartened if this one isn't over at the half.