Iowa will begin the 2012 season outside of the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium.
The Hawks will meet the Northern Illinois Huskies at Soldier Field in Chicago. Considerably more black and gold will occupy the stands than the red and black of the Huskies. Nevertheless, it is officially an "away" game and it certainly isn't at Kinnick Stadium.
Normally, the first game of the year is something of a glorified scrimmage for the Hawkeyes. There is no real threat of a loss, and typically, the bench is emptied by the end of the third quarter.
However, this matchup against NIU will mark Iowa's toughest opening game—on paper—since its 2003 meeting against Ben Roethlisberger's Miami (OH) RedHawks, a game Iowa won 21-3.
To put the competitiveness of the game into perspective, Iowa has opened its season with a FCS foe five of the last six years. The one exception was 2007, when the Hawks also played NIU in Chicago. That team, which finished 2-10, was nowhere near as good as this bunch, which many predict will win the MAC's Western Division for the third year in a row.
In effect, this game is a decidedly real contest against a team that has a very real opportunity to beat the Hawkeyes.
Head Coach: Dave Doeren (second year as head coach)
Conference: Mid-American Conference (MAC)
Record, Last Five Years: 2011, 11-3; 2010, 11-3; 2009, 7-6; 2008, 6-7; 2007, 2-10
2011 Scoring Offense: 38.3 points-per-game
2011 Scoring Defense: 30.3 points-per-game
Returning Starters: three on offense, eight on defense, both specialists
Offensive Scheme: Multiple look, no-huddle offense
Defensive Scheme: 4-3
All-time Record Against Hawkeyes: 0-7
Results of Last Meeting: 3-16, 2007
Last Five Meetings vs. AQ Teams: 2011, Wisconsin, 7-49; 2011, Kansas, 42-45; 2010, Minnesota, 34-23; 2010, Illinois, 22-28; 2010, Iowa State, 10-27.
Key Injuries: OL Logan Pegram (broken leg), will not play
According to the depth chart, the Hawkeye defensive line will feature two players that have never started a game.
Specifically, sophomores Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat will start at defensive tackle.
Meanwhile, the defensive ends will be senior Steve Bigach, who earned five starts in 2011, and junior Dominic Alvis, who started nine games before tearing his ACL.
Other players that will see meaningful minutes include sophomore Mike Hardy and redshirt freshman Darian Cooper inside; and senior Joe Gaglione along with redshirt freshman Melvin Spears at end.
It is worth noting that Gaglione left last week's open practice after taking a shot to the head.
Meanwhile, Northern Illinois will break in an entirely new offensive line. The combined number of career starts among its current, healthy offensive linemen is an unattractive two.
That has the potential to take the wind out of the sails of a team that had the 13th-most rushes in the country last year.
Complicating this issue, NIU graduated its top two rushers—quarterback Chandler Harnish and running back Jasmin Hopkins—who individually accounted for 71.4 percent of the Huskies' carries in 2011.
The NIU offensive front will be ripe for the pickings, provided that the Iowa defensive front knows how to take advantage of it.
New NIU junior quarterback Jordan Lynch doesn't have anywhere near the experience of his predecessor Chandler Harnish where it concerns passing.
Thus far in his career, Lynch has attempted 26 passes, though, to his credit, he has completed 19 of them.
Nevertheless, as NIU blog Red and Black Attack noted, "he's a better runner than Harnish," who was pretty dangerous himself.
In 76 career rushing attempts, Lynch has compiled 608 yards, which is good for eight yards-per-carry.
Early last year, Iowa had issues containing dual-threat quarterbacks, and that was with two senior defensive ends.
This year, Lynch will test the Hawkeyes. He will also serve as a litmus test for Iowa's upcoming games, as eight of Iowa's 11 other opponents feature dual-threat quarterbacks.
I don't know how many times the following has been written about James Vandenberg this off-season—I have written it at least three times—but it bears repeating.
JVB's 2011 statistics at home: seven games, 61.4 completion percentage, 1,798 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, 158.51 passer efficiency rating.
JVB's 2011 statistics away from Kinnick Stadium: six games, 55.8 completion percentage, 1,224 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions, 117.37 passer efficiency rating.
His best away showing was against Purdue, where he completed 68.8 percent of 32 passes for 273 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. In effect, he has proven he can be effective on the road, but can he do it consistently?
Though Hawkeye fans will outnumber Husky fans at Soldier Field, this game will officially be an away game. Even if it were officially a home game, it won't be at Kinnick Stadium.
In effect, this will be a much better, and safer, way to see how JVB, and the entire offense, are affected by the road, than will the Hawks' second roadie—an Oct. 13 date at Spartan Stadium.
This season, Iowa will break in only its second offensive coordinator (OC) during the Kirk Ferentz era.
Greg Davis will implement a West Coast passing attack that will lessen the amount of time the quarterback holds onto the ball in the pocket. It will also diversify its air attack, as Steve Batterson of the Quad City Times recently reported.
Along with this, there will be more shotgun looks and more hurry-up offense.
Finally, more responsibility will be put on pass catchers to read the coverage and react.
All of this newness will inevitably lead to miscommunications. This could conceivably lead to more errant throws and interceptions for JVB, who had the second-best interceptions-per-throw ratio in the Big Ten last year.
How greatly the new offense affects the Hawks and how quickly they adjust will be a substantial determining factor of the success of the 2012 season.
That adjustment period starts on Sept. 1.
Meanwhile, the defense will also have a new defensive coordinator (DC), though, in this case, Ferentz didn't look outside his "family" to find his man.
The new DC is Phil Parker, who has repeated referenced a more aggressive scheme (per the Cedar Rapids Gazette), necessitated by inexperience up front.
This aggressiveness will take the form of more blitzing, more dropping safeties into the box, more man coverage, and more pressing at the line.
Of course, this will open up whole new cans of worms in the form of big plays and players in man coverage turning their backs to the (extremely mobile and dangerous) quarterback.
Though NIU graduated its quarterback, top running back and most of its offensive line, it returns a dangerous group of play-makers at receiver.
Only two of the Huskies' top 10 pass catchers are gone, with three of the top five returning.
The two most notable are seniors Martel Moore and Perez Ashford, both of whom caught 47 passes last year.
Ashford, who is 5'10", served as more of a slot/possession receiver, averaging 11.28 yards-per-catch (YPC) to go with three touchdowns. He was also a dangerous runner on jet sweeps, picking up 85 yards on 10 carries.
Moore is 6'2" and is more of a downfield threat. He had the fourth-best YPC average in the MAC with 15.89.
NIU also returns experience in its No. 3 man, sophomore Da'Ron Brown, as well as juniors Anthony Johnson and Jamison Wells.
Finally, sophomore Tommylee Lewis, who was known for his kick return skills last year, could become a regular part of the offense.
In short, outside of Northwestern, Michigan and Nebraska, NIU might have the most dangerous group of receivers Iowa will face this year.
The Huskies return their entire secondary, but as that secondary allowed the No. 8 opposing passer efficiency in the MAC, it has a lot to prove.
This year's pass defense will be much improved, as last year's bunch—and last year's entire defense—were almost entirely new faces.
In fact, last year's pass defense improved tremendously, allowing an efficiency rating of 194.25 through the first five games, but finishing the year impressively, with 124.85 through the final nine games.
It is true that the first five games included a contest against nationally-ranked Wisconsin, but they also included games against 2-10 Kansas, FCS Cal Poly and triple option Army.
In short, don't let the Huskies' overall 2011 pass defense stats fool you—this is a solid bunch.
Meanwhile, this will be a new-look Iowa passing game that not only features a new offense, but also will be without last year's Mr. All-Everything, Marvin McNutt.
The Hawks do have the Big Ten's second and 10th-most productive returning wide receivers, but that is as much an indication of how much the conference graduated at receiver, as what Iowa has.
NIU boasts the best secondary Iowa will see until its mid-October date against Michigan State, and this will be new top receivers Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley's chance to show they are a force to be reckoned with.
Much has been made of Iowa's tight ends this off-season.
Greg Davis himself (per the Cedar Rapids Gazette) said of C.J. Fiedorowicz, "This is only 39 springs I’ve been in and I’ve never had a tight end like C.J. with his size and ability to play at the line of scrimmage and also stretch the field.”
Hawkeye fans have been waiting for the 6'7", 265-pound uber-recruit—Rivals No. 5 tight end in the 2010 class—to show his stuff, and it appears that this year, he is ready.
Davis's offense will feature the tight ends, even more than former OC, Ken O'Keefe's did. O'Keefe made substantial use of his tight ends, but they tended to be in slow-developing plays—delays, waggles and rollouts—in which the tight end was not the primary target, but a drop off target depending upon how the defense reacted.
Davis will send his tight ends downfield and the quarterback will view them as his primary option.
C.J. Fed, in particular, will present matchup nightmares, and this will be no more apparent than against NIU.
None of the Huskies' top linebackers measure above 5'11", which will leave them helpless if the ball is thrown to the upper area of Fiedorowicz's catch radius. NIU strong safety Dechane Durante is 6'2", but at 196 pounds, if he can't ankle tackle C.J. Fed, then it will be off to the races.
Last year, Iowa ranked fifth in the Big Ten in opponent's kickoff returns, which was surprising, because Iowa fans seemed to be holding their breath every time the Hawks kicked off.
This year, the Hawkeye kickoff coverage will show what it is made out of in the first game.
Tommylee Lewis was fourth in the MAC with 25.17 yards-per-return. He returned two for touchdowns against Toledo.
As last year was his first on campus, Lewis can only get better.
Put simply, this is the first game of the year for both teams.
Iowa has a green defensive line and running back group to go along with a new offense and a more aggressive defense.
Northern Illinois has an almost entirely new group of players on the offense, as well as two new linebackers.
Both teams are salty, but both teams are also rusty. These are the types of games where the "cleaner," more polished team often wins.
As previously mentioned, this is the Hawkeyes' toughest opening contest since 2003.
They will have to be sharper than they were last year against Tennessee Tech.
1. Contain Lynch.
Force him to prove he can win games with his arm. This is something the Hawks will have to do all season against quarterbacks like Kain Colter, Taylor Martinez and Denard Robinson.
2. Attack the linebackers and safeties with crossing patterns to the tight ends and receivers.
Iowa's tight ends have a decided physical advantage over NIU's linebackers. The middle of the field should be the soft area in the Huskies' coverage. Greg Davis's new offense is ideally suited to take advantage of that.
3. Attack the green NIU offensive line.
Two returning career starts. Can you say "green?" Throw different looks at the front five. Force them to show they are ready for the prime time.
4. Finish tackles and make Lynch and the NIU offense drive the field.
It is early in the year, and there are new faces in the Hawkeye front seven, as well as a new cornerback and safety. Nevertheless, Iowa can't afford to let any Huskies get out of tackles. This is a fast team that will burn a sloppy opponent.
5. Win the turnover battle.
This is an obvious statement for any football team, especially a Kirk Ferentz-coached team. Nonetheless, a new passing scheme and brand-new, inexperienced running backs could lead to costly turnovers. The offense can't let that happen.