CEDAR FALLS - Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley has never been afraid to play the big boys of college football.
But Farley and the Panthers took a challenging schedule to the next level this season as Northern Iowa will face two FBS schools for the first time in school history. The Panthers will open in Madison, Wis., against the Wisconsin Badgers and then will head to Iowa City two weeks later to face the instate rival Hawkeyes.
"The schedule is very interesting," said Farley during Northern Iowa's annual football media day at the UNI-Dome on Saturday. "I never thought UNI would play two FBS schools in one season. I always try to play either Iowa or Iowa State, but I never thought we'd play two FBS schools in the same season."
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley speaks to reporters during the team’s annual media day event on Saturday at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
Northern Iowa's fall camp is filled with a heavily-intense quarterback battle, a deep group of running backs, one of the best linebackers to ever don a UNI uniform and an all-American kicker.
The Panthers went 10-3 last year and have started 2012 ranked No. 9 in College Sporting News' preseason poll. The Panthers have quite a tradition in football, having appeared in the FCS playoffs 16 times, winning 16 MVFC Championships and advancing to the FCS semifinals seven times.
Northern Iowa also has had six seasons of 10-plus wins since 2001 and been ranked in the top five six times during that same span.
UNI Football Schedule
Sept. 1 at Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 8 Central State, 6 p.m.
Sept. 15 at Iowa, 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 22 at Youngstown St., 6 p.m.
Sept. 29 North Dakota St., 6 p.m.
Oct. 13 at Southern Illinois, 2 p.m.
Oct. 20 South Dakota St., 4 p.m.
Oct. 27 Illinois St., 4 p.m.
Nov. 3 at Western Illinois 1 p.m.
Nov. 10 at South Dakota, Noon
Nov. 17 Missouri St., 4 p.m.
"It is not always the talent that we put on the football field," Farley said. "I still believe we win because of how we do things here. It's the same recipe every year."
The intense quarterback battle right now in camp features four outstanding quarterbacks, according to Farley. The guys battling for one starting spot are sophomore Jared Lanpher, redshirt freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen, sophomore Stephen Kaiser and true freshman Justin Black.
"We have never had four quarterbacks on one of our teams that can throw it like these guys can," Farley said. "All are very young, but all four should be mentioned in the same breath at this point. There is a reason they came here to play football. They all want to win."
Farley wouldn't single out any of the four at this point but did have a breakdown of how the process of choosing a starter would possibly go.
"We are going to have five practices and then we'll drop the number down to three," Farley said. "We'll go with those three for one week and then drop it down to two and then I will likely name a starter the week school starts so we have enough time to prepare that guy for the opener against Wisconsin."
One thing Farley stressed during the Saturday morning press conference was how the coaching staff is doing its best to build depth on the roster. With the way the schedule is this season - and every season for that matter - he has a feeling something could happen in the first three games.
"If we are going to be good this season, we have to have depth," Farley said. "I'm not a genius but playing those early games will probably lead to some injuries. We'll need to have depth. Hopefully we'll find that in fall camp."
Farley knows the schedule will be tough all season, but the long-time UNI coach is just looking at the first stage of the season at this point. He just wants to make it to the bye week.
"You can't look past anything," said Farley, who is 99-40 in 11 years at Northern Iowa. "It is a grind for sure. We can't come up for air because our open date comes later. I am concerned with just getting to that bye. We have Wisconsin, Iowa and Youngstown State during that time frame."
There will be plenty of battles in camp, including a four-person race at the running back position.
Senior Carlos Anderson was just named a team captain and will get a majority of the carries, but Farley likes the guys behind him in former West Des Moines Valley star Zach Cutkomp, a junior, sophomore David Johnson and freshman Evan Williams. Freshman Tyvis Smith also could be in the mix as well.
Johnson is the top returning rusher and top returning receiver for UNI as he finished with 822 rush yards and nine touchdowns as well as 422 receiving yards last season. Anderson had 410 rushing yards but missed two games.
Farley will have plenty of depth at wide receiver and the offensive line will be very good with the return of senior captain and center Brian Palangi, senior Tim Sauer, junior Dan Kruger and sophomore Jack Rummells.
While the offense has a chance to be very good, Farley admits that the defensive line and linebacker positions are still a work in progress.
Senior Tim Clark and junior Chris Jepsen return to the defensive line, while junior Jordan Gacke could be one of the best defensive players in the league this year. Farley called Gacke "one of the best linebackers to ever play for me at Northern Iowa."
Also getting an opportunity to start at linebacker is junior Sam Tim, a standout in the CIML for Ames a few years back.
The secondary consists of preseason All-American Varmah Sonie as well as senior captain Garrett Scott, senior J.J. Swain and senior Wilmot Wellington. Sonie had 70 tackles and three interceptions last year for the Panthers.
The other preseason All-American selection is junior kicker Tyler Sievertsen, who was 39-for-39 in PATs last year and 18-of-20 in field goals. He had a long of 48 yards in 2011.
UNI's three losses last season were a one-point loss to Iowa State in the opener, an eight-point loss to the eventual national champion in North Dakota State and a blowout loss at Montana in the final game of the season.
Northern Iowa opens the season Sept. 1, against Wisconsin before hosting Central State. The Panthers also travel to Iowa and Youngstown State and host North Dakota State before the bye week.
"Being focused on each game is going to be the key for this team," Anderson said. "We need to prepare the same when we are playing Wisconsin and Iowa as we do when we play the conference schools."