Iowa football: The non-conference schedule

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The Iowa football team has a manageable non-conference schedule with plenty of story lines.

This season the Iowa football team has a nonconference schedule that is very eventful and interesting for the Iowa fans.

They play their four nonconference teams at the very start of the season. Their first three games are played in Iowa City. They start it off with Northern Iowa, followed by Ball State and their instate rivals Iowa State before traveling to Pittsburgh.

[Iowa football: The Big Ten schedule]

Northern Iowa will be a very interesting game. It is the opening game of the season, a game where Northern Iowa is always dangerous. When given the whole offseason to prepare for one opponent, the Panthers really even the playing field even when the talent disparity is so great.

We saw probably the best example of that in 2009 when the future Orange Bowl champions in the Iowa Hawkeyes opened up the season against Northern Iowa. It was close throughout it and down with only a couple of seconds left Northern Iowa had a chance to win the game with a very makeable field goal.

They kicked the field goal on 3rd down and it was blocked by the Hawks. Northern Iowa recovered it and since it was third down and there was time on the clock, Northern Iowa got another chance to win the game. As the kick went up the Hawkeyes blocked it again and this time ended the game. Such a fluke two plays separated a top ten team from a FCS opponent. Credit Northern Iowa and their preparation for potentially stealing a game away from the Hawkeyes.

This season’s game has plenty of new story lines as the Panthers have added two former Iowa running backs this season. Michael Malloy and Barkley Hill transferred to Northern Iowa this offseason to bolster their already impressive running back stable. They will be valuable assets for the Northern Iowa team both on and off the field as they know Iowa’s strengths and weaknesses. Also a lot of the players on Northern Iowa were overlooked by Iowa coming out of high school so they have extra motivation to prove what Iowa is missing by not choosing them.

Ball State looks to be very interesting. On one hand they have a head coach in Pete Lembo who has won nine or more games at three different schools. There are only six other coaches who have accomplished that feat. Ball State is coming off a 10 win season.

The problem with them is that Ball State lost their four year starting quarterback. Their most experienced returning quarterback has more sacks than completion in his experience in mop duty. Their skill positions are very good and their offensive line will be pretty decent. So they have talent on offense but their defense has been downright awful in the past couple of years. Last year it was 85th in the nation. In the last four games they gave up an average of 34.3 points per game. Ball State could be dangerous if a good quarterback emerges and their defense improves. Those are big “ifs” though.

The third game Iowa plays has been circled on everyone’s calendars as it is against their big rivals Iowa State. This is a typical Iowa-Iowa State game. Iowa State doesn’t have high expectations for their season, (some betting lines just came out and North Dakota State is favored by 2 points over Iowa State. Yes, the North Dakota State that is in the FCS.) But like in every Iowa-Iowa State game, it is up in the air. Iowa State always plays Iowa way differently than they normally do against other opponents. We have seen it many times in the past that a worse Iowa State team can beat a good Iowa team.

Iowa State should have a meh offense coupled with a meh defense. Some key injuries killed the Cyclones last year, but so did an awful offense coupled with a defense that was downright awful at some points. Both units should improve and adding assistant coach Mark Mangino should help. Remember the Cyclones lost 71-7 against Baylor last season. Baylor also had over 700 yards that game. On paper Iowa should win, but no one really knows in this game.

Pittsburgh looks to be the biggest opponent this season. They return 13 players from last year, but lose now NFL quarterback Tom Savage. Sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik is expected to be the starter. He was a very highly regarded recruit coming out of high school as he was the 11th best quarterback. He will have a great target in a 1st-Team-Freshman-All-American wide receiver in Tyler Boyd.

The defense only returns five players from a unit that gave up 27.2 points per game. The key loss is first round pick Aaron Donald as he had 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss. No one else on their team had more than 4 sacks. Their offense looks potentially threatening; their defense looks slightly toothless.

Each game could be a fight for the Hawkeyes as they look to go through the nonconference games undefeated, something head coach Kirk Ferentz has only done once in his career at Iowa.