The long offseason is finally over for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The 4-8 record in 2012 marked the Hawkeyes' worst season since 2000, and the 2012 season was the first time they hadn't gone bowling since 2007. It was a season full of close losses at home that left Kinnick Stadium a quiet place for most of the Fall.
Now Iowa turns the page and begins the 2013 campaign against a familiar and potent Northern Illinois squad.
Last year on opening weekend, the Huskies led the Hawkeyes 17-9 going into the fourth quarter, but Iowa rallied late and escaped Soldier Field with an 18-17 victory.
With sunny skies and temperatures expected to be in the upper 80s, both teams will need to exercise all the stamina they have for a crucial non-conference showdown in Iowa City.
Date: Saturday, August 31
Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
Location: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA
Spread: Iowa -3 (per Bovada)
Series History: Iowa leads 8-0
Two-deep rosters can be found here
Iowa's Biggest Advantage: Running Game
I'm not a believer in jinxes, even though I'm fully aware of the rough history behind how AIRBHG (The Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) has doomed the Iowa backfield in the past. So I'll just say it, Iowa has great depth at running back.
It's essentially a three-headed monster for the Hawkeyes, consisting of Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. Weisman brings the old-school and hard-nose running style, Bullock has the vision with the shiftiness and Canzeri is the 5'9" speedster.
Last season Iowa sustained a late comeback largely due to the fact they could run the ball to the left side with Bullock. Since Weisman was still at fullback, and Canzeri missed last season with an ACL injury, Bullock was the primary back and finished the game with 30 carries for 150 yards and the go-ahead touchdown.
The Huskies face the challenge of stopping this multi-dimensional ground game with only four returning starters on defense, including just two of their front seven (per Phil Steele). However, Northern Illinois does bring back strong safety Jimmie Ward, who led the Huskies with 104 tackles and three interceptions.
If the Hawkeyes' offensive line wins the battle in the trenches, and they rotate running backs in the heat, it's an optimal time to run some of the no-huddle the Hawkeyes have been working on (via hawkeyesports.com). It would take its toll on the inexperienced NIU defense.
Northern Illinois' Biggest Advantage: Jordan Lynch
Had it not been for Johnny Manziel, Jordan Lynch would have been the most dynamic quarterback in college football last season.
The dual-threat playmaker became the first quarterback in FBS history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,500. Lynch finished with 3,138 yards passing and 1,815 rushing.
Lynch torched the Hawkeyes on the ground last season with his 119 yards on just 18 carries. Unlike the Huskies defense, they return eight players on offense including all of their offensive linemen.
The Iowa secondary did its part last season against Lynch by holding him to just 54 yards passing, but it was the NIU quarterback's first start and the Hawkeyes lost cornerback Micah Hyde to the NFL draft. Despite having a new head coach in Rod Carey (who coached NIU in the 2013 Orange Bowl), the Huskies offense should be more explosive and balanced this time around.
If the Hawkeyes can't contain Lynch, and get pressure on him from Carl Davis and the front four, this will put a burden on first-time starter Jake Rudock.
Biggest Question: Protecting Jake Rudock
With quarterback James Vandenberg graduated, Iowa fans are eager to see how Rudock will do in his first outing.
The best way to help him succeed is with good protection from the offensive line. That's something the Hawkeyes struggled with last year as the Huskies sacked Vandenberg six times and Iowa only put up 129 yards through the air.
Granted Northern Illinois will have a lot of new faces on defense, but the Iowa offensive line will look different as well. While Austin Blythe moves to center, Conor Boﬀeli and Jordan Walsh, with just four starts between them in 2012 (Per Steele), start at left and right guard.
Should the offensive line allow Rudock to step up in the pocket, keep an eye on C.J. Fiedorowicz.
The senior has only 600 yards receiving in his college career, but with his 6'7" 265-pound frame and monstrous hands, that should increase significantly. The Hawkeyes will use many more two tight-end sets this year, especially with Jake Duzey on the other side.
Considering that Iowa has been a gold mine for producing NFL tight ends under head coach Kirk Ferentz, Fiedorowicz's involvement is crucial to Rudock's success.
If the offensive line can't protect its new quarterback, the Hawkeyes will have a tough time keeping up with Lynch.
Despite having a new quarterback in place, with the Hawkeyes' running backs, Fiedorowicz, Kevonte Martin-Manley and Jordan Cotton returning, Rudock has a lot of experience around him.
I'd expect the Hawkeye offense to run about 60 percent of the time, increase the tempo occasionally and try to beat the Huskies up front. With an established run game, that should make life on Rudock a lot easier when throwing the ball, and the Hawkeyes should control the line of scrimmage.
On the defensive side, Lynch will put up good numbers. With a year of starting experience and Iowa being the only team he lost to in the regular season, Lynch will come in full-steam ahead.
However, the Hawkeyes and their senior linebackers will have an easier time preparing for him this time around, now that they've seen how impressive Lynch really is.
Furthermore, NIU doesn't return its top running back and receiver from last year, and running back Akeem Daniels is out with a foot injury, according to Rick Brown and Andrew Logue of The Des Moines Register.
Lynch keeps the game close, but the Hawkeyes' depth prevails.
Iowa 30, Northern Illinois 24