CEDAR FALLS - The Missouri Valley Football Conference title runs through the UNI-Dome.
Or so it appears to on paper.
Northern Iowa will get the chance to host the two conference favorites on its home turf this season, which gives the Panthers a big opportunity to bounce back from what turned out to be a disappointing 2013 campaign.
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Northern Iowa senior tailback David Johnson talks with a local reporter during the Panthers’ annual football media day at the UNI-Dome on Wednesday. The Panthers were picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, behind defending champion North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley answers a question during the Panthers’ annual football media at the UNI-Dome on Wednesday. The Panthers return 10 starters on offense, eight on defense and were picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Northern Iowa senior defensive tackle Xavier Williams answers questions from a local reporter during Wednesday’s media day event. Williams headlines a defense that returns eight starters from last year’s squad.
The Panthers began last season 4-0 but dropped five straight games in conference play to knock themselves out of the title race and essentially the postseason.
But with 10 returning starters on offense, eight more on defense and a home schedule that includes preseason No. 1 North Dakota State and No. 10 South Dakota State, Northern Iowa feels good about reversing course in the new year.
"Playing any game at the Dome is a big thing," said returning defensive tackle Xavier Williams, a senior who had 74 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks last season. "It's a special place and if you we can get this place rocking, we take on anybody. That should be a big advantage for us against those two teams for sure."
The three-time defending FCS champion Bison and South Dakota State are not the only two teams that Panther coach Mark Farley has to worry about. Northern Iowa, which finished 7-5 last year, starts the year with road games at Iowa and Hawaii and travels to South Dakota and Southern Illinois in league play.
South Dakota and South Dakota State both beat the Panthers in double overtime last year, while Southern Illinois handed Northern Iowa a 24-17 overtime defeat at home. The Panthers also let a big lead slip away from top-ranked North Dakota State before losing 24-23.
All those losses came during the Panthers' five-game losing streak. And they also came with key guys missing time with injuries.
When those players returned to the lineup, UNI was able to run off three straight wins to end the season.
The program that resides in Cedar Falls is hoping the see more of the team that started 4-0 and ended with three straight wins in 2014 and less of the beat-up squad that lost five straight games - four in overtime or double overtime - in the middle of the season.
"It's a new season, and every team takes it own life," said Farley, the UNI alum that begins his 14th season as Panther head coach. "We are set to go on this journey and I don't know what will happen, but injuries are part of the game. I do think we have more talented depth this year than we have had in recent years. The third or fourth guy in each position is a quality athlete."
The offense starts and ends with senior tailback David Johnson, a Clinton native who gained 1,286 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground last year.
But talented transfer running back Barkley Hill expects to be a more than capable backup and quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen, his three top receivers - Chad Owens, Brett LeMaster and Kevin Vereen - from last year and four of the five starters from the offensive line also are back, including four-year starter Jack Rummells.
"We have 18 seniors on this team and it starts and ends with them," said Farley. "That will be the base of this team. The opportunity is there, we just need to take advantage of the opportunity."
Kollmorgen threw for 1,824 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, while Vereen had 750 receiving yards and four scores and Owens added 595 yards and five scores in the passing game. LeMaster missed all of last season with an injury and Hill transferred in from the University of Iowa.
"The playoffs are in the back of my mind, but we just have to take it one game at a time," said Johnson. "We need to get ready for game one and just continue to get better as a team."
The leader on defense will be 6-foot-4, 311-pound defensive tackle Xavier Williams, a senior who had 74 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks in his second year as a starter in 2013.
The other defensive tackle will be sixth-year senior Mac O'Brien. Max Busher returns to the starting lineup at linebacker after recording 75 tackles and two interceptions last season and the Panthers also bring back a talented and experienced secondary, highlighted by senior Ray Mitchell.
Mitchell finished with 56 tackles, four interceptions and two touchdowns last year. Farley is hoping that two good defensive tackles, an experienced middle linebacker and a strong group in the secondary can help transition in a pair of new defensive ends and a fresh pair of linebackers on each side of Busher.
"I am worried a little bit about the defensive end position and the other two linebacker spots are the biggest unknown of our football team right now," said Farley. "But we hope our maturity in the secondary and up the middle of our front seven can help offset the questions at linebacker."
Busher may get one of his running mates from last year back in Jake Farley. The senior linebacker and son of Coach Farley started the first five games last year before suffering a season-ending leg injury against North Dakota State. He had 56 tackles in those five games but Coach Farley is unsure when his son will be back in the lineup.
"He isn't where he needs to be and has suffered some setbacks along the way," said Coach Farley. "I am not sure he will even make it there this year."
The Panthers start the season ranked No. 15 in the preseason poll. They have finished in the top 25 of that same poll in 10 of the last 13 seasons.
Northern Iowa also has gone 36-9 inside the UNI-Dome since 2007. That should help the Panthers with games against preseason rated NDSU and SDSU.
"That is huge," said Kollmorgen of the Bison and Jackrabbits having to come to Cedar Falls this year. "Playing in the Dome gives you so much momentum. This one of the hardest places to play and the fact that they come here this year is going to be big for us."
First thing is first though. Before getting a shot at conference redemption tour, the Panthers will travel to instate rival Iowa on Aug. 30 and then head to Hawaii on Sept. 13.
"The football field is the same no matter what," said Williams of playing two FBS schools right off the bat. "When you get out and there and look, you'll see that they have grass, hash marks, two end zones and two goal posts, too. They just have different colored uniforms."
Two area athletes are on the Northern Iowa roster this season. Former West Marshall prep Duncan Ferch is a running back who will most likely redshirt and learn behind a talented and experienced group of tailbacks. South Tama County prep Sam Kuhter comes into the season as the No. 2 punter behind former Southeast Polk prep Logan Bieghler. ... An injury to Hill in his first year at Iowa may have derailed his chances to star for the Hawkeyes. Hill set rushing records as a prep at Cedar Falls High School. ... Besides NDSU and SDSU, the Panthers also host Northern Colorado and Tennessee Tech in the non-conference season in September and Illinois State and Missouri State in MVFC play during the month of November.