The Iowa State Cyclones and Northern Iowa Panthers begin non-conference play at newly renovated Jack Trice Stadium in Ames this Saturday in their first in-state matchup since UNI's 28-20 win in 2013. And while Iowa State competes in the big-name Big 12 Conference and FBS, Northern Iowa's Panthers, runners-up in the FCS' Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2014, will look to overcome their lower division stigma and hand the Cyclones an seeason-opening home loss for the second time in three years.
Northern Iowa at Iowa State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: Cyclones.tv (Mediacom)
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Iowa State Offense Find Its Stride?
The Cyclones get eight starters returning behind Manning Award Watch list candidate senior QB Sam B. Richardson. Richardson broke the Cyclone single-season completion mark and set the single-game completion mark twice last season. He'll have plenty of weapons to choose from in 2015 with returning receivers Quenton Bundrage, D’Vario Montgomery and Allen Lazard. Richardson can beat you with his feet too, and enters 2015 as one of only four QBs in school history with over 1,000 yards rushing in a career. In 2014 the Cyclones tallied a season-high 569 yards of total offense vs. Texas Tech in what may have been a signal of what could've been if not for the rash of injuries they experienced.
2. Which Panthers Quarterback Shows Up?
In 2014 Northern Iowa started QB Sawyer Kollmorgen for the first seven games with mixed results. After going a dismal 9-14-2 for just 84 yards in a 31-28 loss to South Dakota State, Kollmorgen was replaced in the eighth game against Western Illinois and didn't see action again until the final game of the season. He's back in the driver's seat for the Panthers. Whether his consistency has improved or not will go a long way toward determining how accurate preseason predictions that have the Panthers as high as No. 10 in both the STATS and FCS Coaches poll prove to be.
3. Will the Fans Make a Difference?
Iowa State averaged 52,197 fans per game in 2014, which is the fourth-best season attendance total in school history. Over 50,000 fans have attended a game in Jack Trice Stadium for a school-record 26 straight games. In 2015 the stadium seating capacity has been increased to 61,500, making it the fourth-largest in the Big 12. Whether or not those additional 8,000 seats get filled by Cyclones or Panthers fans, who've seen Jack Trice turned purple and gold for this game in recent years, could make a tremendous difference in which team really gets the home-field advantage.
Iowa State had tremendous potential in 2014 but saw season-ending injuries to key players put a stop to that by the third game. Most of those players and firepower are back in 2015, however, and are hoping to put it all together for an entire season. While Northern Iowa is a powerful team within the MVFC, don't look for that same swagger here against a bigger and more physical Cyclones squad that's got something to prove.
Prediction: Iowa State 28, Northern Iowa 17
— 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.