The 12th ranked Wisconsin Badgers open their 2012 football season on September 1st when they host the Northern Iowa Panthers in a nonconference game. Northern Iowa is a member of the Missouri Valley Conference in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). This is the first time the Badgers and Panthers have played each other.
Although Wisconsin is 10-0 all time against FCS teams, I've never been a fan of scheduling these opponents. A victory is expected and loss to an FCS school can be devastating in the polls. Northern Iowa is ranked seventh in the FCS Coaches' Poll, so the Panthers are no pushover. I do like the fact that the game is the season opener, and not scheduled fourth like last year's FCS opponent South Dakota. Wisconsin has a new quarterback and six new coaches, so this game should help everyone get on the same page under game conditions before taking on Bowl Subdivision teams.
For the second year in a row, Wisconsin has a starting quarterback who is a transfer from the ACC. It would be unfair to assume former Maryland QB Danny O'Brien will match Russell Wilson's extraordinary performance of last season, but he's a good solid quarterback capable of putting up some good numbers of his own. O'Brien does have returning wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen to throw to, but WR Nick Toon is gone and we'll have to wait and see who steps forward to fill in the gap. Northern Iowa returns all four starters from last year's secondary to make O'Brien's task a little more difficult.
The Badgers may not need to pass much. Running backs Montee Ball and James White will run behind an offensive line where everyone is well over 300 pounds, and as much as 342 pounds in the case of right tackle Rob Havenstein. The Badgers should be able to wear down the smaller Panther defensive line, where only one starter is listed at 300 pounds or more. Ball's quest for the Heisman Trophy begins here, and a poor performance would set him back immediately. I don't see that happening, and I expect Ball to gain a lot of yards both as a rusher and as a receiver in short yardage passing situations.
Northern Iowa's starting quarterback is redshirt freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen, and this is about as difficult a debut as it gets for a new quarterback. The Badgers have won their last 16 straight home games, and the crowd of 80,000 in Camp Randall Stadium can be overwhelming, if not intimidating, for an opposing quarterback. Running back David Johnson rushed for 822 yards and had 422 receiving yards as freshman last year and is probably the Panthers' biggest overall threat on offense. The Badgers' defense was ranked 15th in the nation in 2011. That was fine; it was the inability to stop a handful of big plays at the worst possible time that gave the Badgers their three painful losses last season. The defense should be able to stop the Panthers, but the Badgers will have to keep those big plays from happening if they are to repeat as Big Ten champs.
The Badgers' advantage in experience, size, and athleticism should carry them to an opening game victory. Let the games begin.
A Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Mark Hudziak is a lifelong Wisconsin resident and longtime fan of Wisconsin Badger sports.
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