(STATS) - Although Northern Iowa appears to be well positioned on the offensive side of the ball, Mark Farley's squad has some concerns defensively heading into its season opener at Iowa State on Saturday night.
The fifth-ranked Panthers have brought back last season's leading tackler Jared Farley and sackmaster Karter Schult, but only four other starters returned. They were certainly hit hardest in the secondary, where they're grooming a new group after losing Deiondre' Hall (Chicago Bears) and Makinton Dorleant (Green Bay Packers) to the NFL.
"We lost three-year starters at the two corners as well as our safeties, so we lost experience players, let alone talented players," said Farley, who is one win away from becoming the school's all-time leader with 130. "It's hard to get two corners in the NFL, and right now we have two who are doing quite well. So we have our work cut out (for us) there."
The Cyclones, however, are expected to establish the running game first and foremost under new coach Matt Campbell, who replaced Paul Rhoads after the program went six straight seasons without a winning record. Campbell's Toledo team led the MAC with 207.9 rushing yards per game last season and Iowa State hopes to emulate that success behind Mike Warren, a star running back who led all freshman with 1,339 yards in 2015.
The Panthers are no strangers to the hostile environment that awaits them in Ames. They played in front of a Jack Trice Stadium record-tying 61,500 in a 31-7 loss to the Cyclones in last season's opener. Quarterback Aaron Bailey had 114 passing yards and 85 on the ground in that contest as Northern Iowa lost for the third time in the last four meetings.
Farley insists the Panthers, who finished 9-5 in 2015, are getting ready for the rivalry just as they would any other game.
"We've played them enough that I don't see any other difference between other games that we prepare for," he said. "The mindset is very similar, but there is more of a spotlight on this game for more of the people surrounding the state."
Bailey, running back Tyvis Smith and receiver Daurice Fountain are a big reason why the Panthers enter the season with some lofty expectations. Bailey threw for 1,656 yards and ran for another 1,334 in 2015, while Smith had 1,079 rushing yards and seven scores and Fountain finished with 41 receptions for 604 yards and five TDs.
They'll try to find the holes in an Iowa State defense that hopes to show improvement with eight starters back on a unit that ranked 107th in the nation with 453.4 yards allowed per game.
"I know what we are," Farley said. "I know what we can be. I just don't know what we are today. That will show up (at Iowa State)."
NEW FACES IN NORMAL
Stars Marshaun Coprich and Tre Roberson may have moved on, but coach Brock Spack insists there's still plenty of offensive firepower at Illinois State.
The 10th-ranked Redbirds will show off their new backfield at Hancock Stadium on Saturday night when they open the season against Valparaiso.
Coprich rushed for 1,967 yards and 23 touchdowns on the way to back-to-back MVFC Offensive Player of the Year honors, while Roberson threw for 2,225 yards and 18 TDs and ran for another 777 yards and 11 scores. They helped Illinois State (10-3) reach the national quarterfinals after winning the MVFC co-championship for the second straight season.
Now, the Redbirds are turning to redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe and a committee of running backs, which could be led by freshman James Robinson.Kolbe, a highly recruited prospect out of Naperville Central, completed 26 of 40 passes for 264 yards with two TDs and one interception in six games last season.
"We have a plethora of things we can do. When we had Tre here, we could do double and triple option and Kolbe is no different from that standpoint," Spack said. "He can run the same stuff out of the gun that we did with Tre. He's a better athlete than people think and makes good decisions.
"I don't know if we have a guy who can take a game over like Coprich did, but I guess we'll find out."
Spack's new playmakers should be able to ease into things against the Crusaders, who welcome 12 starters back from a team that finished 1-9 in 2015. Valparaiso has only reached the four-victory mark once since 2007.
Kolbe's should take comfort in having All-American receiver Anthony Warrum at his disposal. The senior is looking for more after setting a school single-season record and leading the MVFC with 15 receiving touchdowns. He also ranked second in the league with 1,290 yards on 58 receptions.
With six starters returning, Spack also believes the Redbirds will be much better on defense after ranking 53rd in FCS with 374.8 yards allowed per game.
They'll have to keep a close watch on junior quarterback Ryan Clarke, who threw for 980 yards and 10 touchdowns - including five in the lone win at Davidson - in his eight games last season. Clarke's top two receiving targets, junior Frank Catrine and sophomore Jean Rene, teamed for nearly 900 yards and eight scores.
In the first meeting between the schools since 1948, Illinois State seeks its 20th win in the past 21 home games. The Redbirds also have won seven straight openers at Hancock Stadium.
TOUGH TEST FOR JACKRABBITS
Eighth-ranked South Dakota State should find out what it's made of right away Saturday night when it visits TCU, the nation's No. 13 team in FBS.
The Jackrabbits stunned Kansas in last season's opener, 41-38, en route to an 8-4 record and fourth straight playoff appearance. Now they'll get their first look at the high-scoring Horned Frogs, who finished 11-2 after rallying from 31 points down for a 47-41, triple-overtime win over Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
South Dakota State is led by junior wide receiver Jake Wieneke, who has been a two-time first-team all-league pick. Wieneke finished with 72 catches for a single-season league record 1,472 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season, earning All-America honors for the second year in a row. Tight end Dallas Goedert also was recognized on STATS FCS Preseason All-America Team after hauling in 26 receptions for 484 yards in 2015.
Kenny Hill, a former Texas A&M starter, will make his TCU debut as the Horned Frogs try to extend the fifth-best streak in FBS by winning their 15th straight home opener. They welcome back 2015 sacks leader Josh Carraway and stud defensive end James McFarland after he missed last season because of a broken toe.
South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier says this could be the best team his program has ever faced.
"TCU is different than other teams we've played," the 20th-year coach said. "We'll see more skill and speed from them. (But) I told our players that we're not going down there for a track meet. ... We have to go and play our best football. There's no doubt they're going to be faster - and they're at home - but we're really looking forward to it."