Iowa State's football team has a very difficult schedule in 2003. There certainly aren't very many "gimmes."
On September 13, the Cyclones play host to Iowa, which is coming off an Orange Bowl season and will be plenty motivated after losing five straight to ISU.
On October 4, Oklahoma visits Ames. The Sooners' defense looked like an Olympic track team last season when they defeated the Cyclones, 49-3.
On October 18, Texas comes to town. Several preseason publications have the Longhorns in the nation's Top 5. This will be ISU's Homecoming Game.
On October 25, the Cyclones travel to Lincoln, Nebraska. The Huskers joined ISU and New Mexico last season as the only teams in college football history to finish 7-7. Plus, Nebraska will be looking to avenge its 36-14 defeat in Ames a year ago.
On November 8, Kansas State visits Ames. As Iowa State fans are well aware, the Wildcats appear to be the Cyclones' "El Guapo." In the last five meetings, K-State has outscored ISU, 243-55. That's an average score of 49-11.
I hope this blast of reality didn't ruin your appetite.
Despite the obvious difficulties presented by the aforementioned opponents, there is one more game on ISU's schedule that really worries me. It's a game that could potentially make or break the Cyclones' season. And it's against a team that you probably don't know very much about…Northern Illinois.
What's the deal? Aren't games against teams like Northern Illinois supposed to be 45 to 3 "tune-ups" before the REAL season gets underway? How could the Huskies from DeKalb pose a serious threat to a Big 12 team coming off its third consecutive bowl game?
Here are seven reasons this game has me concerned…
- Northern Illinois is good. Very good. The Huskies have played some close games with "big-name" teams in the last couple of seasons…and they're bound to pull off the big upset sooner or later. Last season, they lost at Wisconsin, 24-21. The year before, they lost at Illinois, 17-12. These games have proven to Northern Illinois that it CAN compete with the "big boys." This experience has also undoubtedly left the 13 returning starters very hungry to finish the job against a major program.
- The game is in DeKalb. Think about a small stadium, with 30,076 fans crammed in, screaming their lungs out for a victory that will surely get them some attention on "SportsCenter." If this game were to be played in Ames, I would be plenty worried. The fact that it's on the road makes it worse.
- It falls between two HUGE games for Iowa State. The Cyclones play Iowa on September 13, followed by a bye week, then the game at Northern Illinois on September 27, followed by the Oklahoma game on October 4. Obviously, the games against the Hawkeyes and Sooners will be emotional highs for ISU. So naturally, a game against a MAC team sandwiched in there would provide a chance for a "letdown."
- Michael Turner. The Huskies' running back ran for 1,915 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, averaging nearly six yards per carry. He weighs 223 pounds and has 4.4 speed. And this game will be played on artificial turf. I don't like the sounds of any of that.
- Josh Haldi. The Northern Illinois quarterback finished last season on quite a hot streak, with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions in the Huskies' final seven games. He finished the year with 2,027 yards passing and appeared to get better as the season went along.
- Special teams. Northern Illinois has a punt returner — Dan Sheldon — who averaged 22.7 yards per return last season, including three touchdowns, and two kick returners — Randee Drew and Turner — who averaged over 26 yards per kick return. Those are some terrific numbers. Add to that a solid kicker in Steve Azar, who made 18 of 25 (72%) of his field goals last season, including 2 of 4 from 50+ yards out.
- The pressure of "nothing to gain and everything to lose." Obviously, there would be something to gain with a victory over Northern Illinois. But, let's face it. The college football world EXPECTS a Big 12 team to go into DeKalb, Illinois and come away with a victory. However, if the Huskies were to pull off the upset, regardless of how good they are, it would be pretty embarrassing for the Cyclones. That's just the way it is. And that puts all the pressure on the Iowa State sideline.
I suppose maybe I'm over-thinking some of this stuff. It's possible. But, no matter how you look at it, ISU's schedule is as tough as nails again in 2003, which means the Cyclones need to grab ANY victory they possibly can. I'm certainly hoping that the Northern Illinois game provides one of those opportunities.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. His columns for CN online are published each Tuesday and Friday. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)