It will be a high-anxiety affair in Iowa City this Saturday for at least the early portion of the game between North Dakota State and Iowa. The Hawkeyes are on all cylinders this season, but that's easy to do when you are playing against sub-par competition.
Enter the North Dakota State Bison.
The boys from Fargo make the trip south fully loaded, looking to demonstrate to a national audience the caliber of football that has won them five consecutive FCS national championships. They'll present Iowa with far and away its biggest challenge so far in this young season. The Bison are technically sound at every position, well-coached and arguably as talented as a few Power Five teams.
North Dakota State at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. The Battle in the Trenches
North Dakota State is probably the FCS' most physical team at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately for the Bison, that is an area where the Hawkeyes excel at the FBS level. If the Bison can't line up and gain any ground pounding it up the gut with running back King Frazier, it could make for a long day. On the other side of the ball, Iowa has one of the best offensive lines in the country and will likely attempt to set the tone early with its own run game. If North Dakota State can have any success early moving the ball on the ground and slowing the Iowa rushing attack, we could be in for an interesting afternoon.
2. Risk-taking in the passing game
Both teams feature signal-callers who will likely play on Sundays. Both also seem to make big plays during big moments with both their arms and their legs that shift momentum in their respective team's favor. It will be their ability to lead, improvise and take risks throughout the day that will ultimately decide the final outcome. Part of that risk-taking will involve forcing the ball through small windows as they target two of the most sure-handed receivers in college football — North Dakota State's R.J. Urzendowski and Iowa's Matt VandeBerg. Those two are almost worth the price of admission alone.
3. Signs of an Iowa hangover
Sure, it was just Iowa State, but the fact remains that the Hawkeyes just played their first of a handful of rivalry games on their schedule. Their performance and execution against the Cyclones tells you just how prepared they were. If they are just as prepared for the Bison, we may be looking at a similar outcome. On the off chance that Iowa takes the field for the 11 a.m. local kickoff a little groggy and going through the motions, the home team risks falling behind by a couple of scores early and playing catch up the rest of the day. I'm not sure the Hawkeyes are built to play that game against a team as disciplined as North Dakota State.
These two teams are very similar in style and preparation. Additionally, they have similar recruiting footprints. North Dakota State features a roster full of kids who could have, should have and in some cases did play for Big Ten schools. As a result, the Bison shouldn't have an issue going toe-to-toe with the Hawkeyes early on. As the game progresses, however, look for the Iowa depth to be the difference. Expect Kirk Ferentz to lean on the run early to wear down North Dakota State's defense, loosening things up for his offense to hang more points in the second half than in the first. On the other side of the ball, I have a tough time seeing Easton Stick and the Bison offense moving the ball consistently against one of the best defenses in college football. The end result will be a hard-fought yet convincing win for Iowa.
Prediction: Iowa 38, North Dakota State 13
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.