Wisconsin looks for its third consecutive Big Ten title and another trip to a BCS bowl this season behind Heisman-contending running back Montee Ball as the Badgers face off with FCS opponent Northern Iowa.
Wisconsin has a new quarterback in Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien this season, who takes over for Russell Wilson.
Northern Iowa lost an important quarterback of its own this offseason in dual-threat Tirrell Rennie and will start a redshirt freshman against the Badgers. Running back David Johnson figures to be featured a lot.
Here's a look at each team's season opener on Saturday.
Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI
When: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Watch: Big Ten Network
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Line: TBA
What's At Stake?
Wisconsin is coming off an 11-3 campaign that saw the program beat three ranked teams and make it to the Rose Bowl, but the Badgers will be without quarterback Russell Wilson this season, who is currently the starter for the Seattle Seahawks.
Nonetheless, the Badgers are ranked 12th in the country because of an electric running game featuring Heisman candidate Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon, as well as what should be a strong defense.
They also have Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien at quarterback this season, who could at least partially make up for the loss of Wilson if he can return to his freshman form (2,438 yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions).
The Badgers are seeking their third straight Big Ten title.
As for Northern Iowa, the Panthers are coming off a 10-3 season, finishing second to North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Conference. They lost to Montana 48-10 in the FCS Midwest regional championship game.
Northern Iowa is seeking its first regional championship since 2008, but it will have to do so without dual-threat quarterback Tirrell Rennie, who accounted for most of the team's offense last season.
Redshirt freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen will take over for the Panthers under center, but he'll have some help in the form of multidimensional running back David Johnson, who rushed for 822 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 33 balls for 422 yards and three scores last season.
A defense that allowed 19.0 points per game last season will also be key against the Badgers. Strong safety Garrett Scott (105 tackles, four interceptions last season) will be particularly important matched up against Ball and Co.
Injury Report (via Covers.com)
None to report
RB Montee Ball - Head - Probable
What They're Saying
This would be the biggest victory in program history if Northern Iowa was able to stun Wisconsin, and don't think the Panthers don't know that.
Head coach Mark Farley said, via the Indianapolis Star, “I feel like the pressure of the world is on us. We want to play well.”
Strong safety Garrett Scott knows the defense will be key, "Our defense, we take pride in making game-changing plays. Anyone that can provide a huge momentum shift would be great.”
Russell Wilson comparisons have been thrown at Danny O'Brien this offseason, given both were transfers that came from the ACC, but Montee Ball isn't expecting O'Brien to be Wilson.
Ball said, according to the Associated Press, via the Miami Herald:
We don't expect for him to play like Russell, because look at Russell now. I mean, he was a freak. We just want Danny to play how he has been playing this entire fall camp.
Northern Iowa Player to Watch: David Johnson, RB
You don't put up the kind of numbers Johnson did last season by being a slouch. He not only rushed for more than 800 yards and nine touchdowns, he led the team in receptions.
The sophomore looks to improve on his rookie campaign this season, and he may be needed more than ever with the departure of Tirrell Rennie.
Wisconsin Player to Watch: Montee Ball, RB
This is a no-brainer.
Montee Ball was electric last season, which is why he was a consensus All-American and is expected to contend for the Heisman Trophy this season.
Ball not only rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns on 6.3 yards per carry in the Big Ten, he also caught 24 balls for 306 yards and six touchdowns.
Ball will be key to the Badgers capturing their third consecutive Big Ten title season.
Key Matchup: Northern Iowa Run Defense vs. Wisconsin Running Game
If Northern Iowa can't stop Montee Ball and Co., it won't matter what Danny O'Brien does. The Panthers gave up 3.9 yards per carry last season, middle of the pack in the FCS. Strong safety Garrett Scott will be important in limiting Ball.
Prediction: Wisconsin 45, Northern Iowa 13
Northern Iowa has played its last two FBS opponents, Iowa State and Ball State, relatively tough, but this is Wisconsin we're talking about.
I expect the Badgers to have their way with Northern Iowa's defense, as they have against much tougher opponents in the Big Ten.
As for the Badgers defense, it should create significant problems for Sawyer Kollmorgen. It's not exactly going to be a confidence-booster for the redshirt freshman.