While it is uncharted territory for many major college football fans, the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as 1-AA), is full of excitement and a whole lot of talent. Its' premier teams regularly beat or keep it close with mediocre FBS teams, and Northern Iowa is no exception.
Northern Iowa can best be explained to the FBS fan as the USC or Florida of the FCS. They have been ranked in the top five in the FCS final polls five of the last seven years, and were ranked in the top 25 all seven. This veteran team looks to be very good in 2009, and other experts agree, as Lindy's Preview Magazine ranked the Panthers fourth in their preseason poll.
After a stellar 2008 season, quarterback Pat Grace is returning for his senior year. He threw for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns, but also showcased his speed, rushing for over 600 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is definitely capable of improving on those number in 2009 and becoming a leader for this team.
Running back will be the major question for UNI heading into 2009. They will be losing Corey Lewis, who rushed for over 1,300 yards and had 13 touchdowns overall. He is UNI's all-time leading rusher and will certainly be missed.
The Panthers will have to rely on Derrick Law, who rushed for around 800 yards and nine touchdowns last year. If he can step up, the losses at running back won't be too great in 2009.
Almost the whole receiving corps will be back for Northern Iowa, and this group could very possibly be the best in the FCS. Leading receiver Josh Collins will lead a stellar group in 2009 that may try and mix it up a little.
Last year, UNI used receiver Jared Herring to run as well, turning this versatile offense into a nightmare for opposing defenses. That shouldn't change in 2009.
The UNI offensive line will be very good in 2009. Center Austin Steichen is coming off a 2008 in which he was first team all conference, and his counterpart at left tackle, Austin Howard, was second team all conference.
This year, Lindy's predicts Howard to be a First Team All-American, with Steichen receiving second team honors. Needless to say, this will be a tough group to get around in 2009.
A majority of the defensive line returns in what should be a solid group for the Panthers in 2009. Senior defensive end James Ruffin is projected to be a First Team All-American and he, along with Senior Chuck Kinney, will be the leaders of this veteran group.
The linebackers should be outstanding in 2009. Senior Josh Mahoney recorded 139 tackles and three interceptions in 2008 while junior Jamar Thompson recorded 110 tackles and four interceptions. This will be one of the best groups in the country, and both of them have a shot at First Team All-American honors.
The defensive backfield does have some questions, though. UNI lost many of their defensive backs to graduation and may lose a lot of the production that they had in 2008. If these problems aren't fixed quickly, the deep passing defense will be one of the few weaknesses on this UNI squad.
The Panthers have a fairly easy schedule this year. Their opener, against Iowa in Iowa City, is a definite loss, but besides that game, the Panthers should be set. They can easily win every other game on their schedule. I would look for the Panthers to finish 10-1 and reach the FCS National Championship game, possibly even win.