College football’s 2015 season officially arrives in Iowa City Saturday as the Big Ten West Division's Iowa Hawkeyes play host to the Missouri Valley Football Conference and STATS FCS preseason No. 2 Illinois State Redbirds in a game most pundits will be looking past as the collegiate season opens across the country.
Don't let the lack of enthusiasm or coverage of this game fool you. If Iowa was looking to end it's lackluster performances in recent season openers against FCS teams, it certainly chose the wrong horse for this contest. Illinois State is coming off a record 13-win season, which ended in the national championship game where the Redbirds finished runners-up to eventual champion North Dakota State by a score of 29-27, but had a chance to win it in the final minute and couldn't get it done.
Iowa on the other hand has lost five of its last seven games, dating back to the Oct. 18, 2014 contest at upstart Big Ten East Division rival Maryland. In last season's home opener for the Hawkeyes, they needed an 88-yard drive with just under seven minutes to play to hold on to beat Illinois State's fellow FCS and MVFC member and in-state rival Northern Iowa 31-23.
Expect both teams in this contest to battle for pride, as Iowa has no interest in starting another season on the ropes, while the Redbirds feel they can compete with anyone and hope to send a message to their upcoming FCS opponents.
Iowa and Illinois State have never met on the football field.
Illinois State at Iowa
Kickoff: 12 p.m. EST (Saturday)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network & BTN2Go
Three Things to Watch
1. How Will Iowa's Offense Perform Under C.J. Beathard?
The Hawkeyes enter the 2015 season without their offensive statistical leaders in passing yards, rushing yards or receptions for the first time since 2004. Their lone offensive statistical leader to return is WR Tevaun Smith, who led the Hawkeyes with a career-high 46 catches for 596 yards in 2014. More importantly Junior QB Beathard is making just his second career start as a Hawkeye, with the only other start coming in a 24-10 win at Purdue in 2014. But that doesn't mean he hasn't shown he can perform. Entering the game as backup in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl against Tennessee, Beathard completed 13-of-23 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for a career-high 82 yards on just eight carries. These are statistics that ultimately earned him the starting job over former QB Jake Rudock, who transferred to Michigan after losing out to Beathard in spring practice. Watch for Beathard to do considerably more with what he's been handed than Rudock was able to get done in 2014 behind a much more experienced group of players.
2. Does Illinois State's FCS Division Status Really Matter?
At least on paper, the Redbirds enter this game as the prohibitive favorite. They return 11 starters from a team that finished a field goal and two minutes shy of the FCS national championship in 2014. And four of those returning starters have been named preseason FCS All-Americans. Their offense is led by former Indiana transfer senior QB Tre Roberson and junior RB Marshaun Coprich, who combined to help Illinois State set 16 school single-season offensive records in 2014. In their lone games against a shared opponent, Iowa struggled to hold off Northern Iowa in the final minutes 31-23, while the Redbirds lost to the Panthers by a wider margin of 42-28. And while Iowa is 12-0 against FCS opponents in its history, the Hawkeyes have struggled to break open those games before being able to put away their lower division rivals. Look for Iowa to capitalize on Beathard's considerably stronger arm and come out fast and hard on offense to set the tempo early, unlike past games where the Hawkeyes waited until the fourth quarter to preserve close wins.
3. Which Defense Steps Up?
Last year, Iowa's defense allowed an average of 344.2 yards per game, while the Redbirds fared just slightly worse at 345.5. The Hawkeyes averaged 28.2 points per game in 2014, the Redbirds 38.3. When taking into account the Iowa's lost offensive productivity on Iowa's side of the ball, compared to the Redbirds who return 98.9 percent of their firepower, you'd have to give the edge here to Illinois State. But statistics can often be deceiving, as they are in this case. The Hawkeyes competed in the much stronger and more physical Big Ten, where defense has traditionally won games. While the Redbirds have a deep roster with a great deal of talent, it has come against considerably less talented or well-coached opponents.
Look for Iowa's bigger and more physical defense to hold Illinois State scoreless for much of the first half. On offense, give the edge ever so slightly to the Hawkeyes as well, behind the potent throwing-rushing ability of new signal-caller Beathard. The Hawkeyes simply have too much size for the Redbirds and will eventually wear them out three downs at a time.
Prediction: Iowa 38, Illinois State 21
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a native Iowan currently living in Los Angeles. A University of Iowa graduate, Boleyn is a Hawkeye fanatic and former contributing writing for The Daily Iowan. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.