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Pack the car. Grab a map. And hit the road.
College football season is here, and there will be plenty of hard-hitting, high-scoring, memorable matchups taking place around the state every week.
But football fans don't just have Ames or Iowa City as places to see a few of the state's best games. Nestled in some of Iowa's smaller colleges — away from the Power Five hoopla and big stadiums — sit great games as well.
With that in mind, the Register went through the college football season and selected the biggest and best games in the state each week for fans to check out.
Saturday: Iowa Central at Iowa Western, Titan Stadium, 2:30 p.m.
Why it matters: It’s the first week of the season but there’s already a lot on the line: The Kinney Cup. It’s not just bragging rights for Iowa Western President Dan Kinney or his son, Iowa Central President Dan Kinney Jr. The Kinney Cup is an actual traveling trophy that has been with Iowa Western since 2010.
Iowa Central started making waves to get it back at the end of last season when the Tritons closed out the season with an upset over powerhouse Butler. They enter this season with quarterback BJ Phillips back and Jesse Montalto entering his first season at the helm after a successful stop at Ellsworth where he led the Panthers to four straight bowl games.
The Rivers are coming off an 11-1 season in 2017 that included them finishing second in the final NJCAA poll following a 36-19 win over Northwest Mississippi in the Graphic Edge Bowl. Despite going just 1-9 last season, Iowa Central could be headed in the right direction. The Tritons closed out the season with the Butler win.
“It’s always been critical to win the in-state games (between ICCC & Ellsworth), because in order to be successful, you have to win the recruiting battle with the in-state guys,” Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. “A lot of the guys know each other because they played together or against each other and had to choose between us and them. Coach Montalto has built the program back up and will have them ready. There’s a renewed excitement for the game itself and even more so with the Kinney Cup being at stake.”
Sept. 8: Iowa State at Iowa, Kinnick Stadium, 4 p.m.
Why it matters: Is there a bigger game in the state? For many Iowans, the answer is an obvious "no." Even better: The rivalry is doing things great rivalries do: Generate headlines on and off the field. From Iowa’s Brian Ferentz’s thoughts on “those guys in Ames” to Matt Campbell’s references to “that team out East,” both sides have helped build up some tension for the showdown. And despite three straight wins by the Hawkeyes, there’s plenty of reason for concern for both teams.
Iowa State led late last season before letting Iowa slip back into it and eventually walk away with a 44-41 overtime win in Ames. The Cyclones now go back to Kinnick for the first time since a 42-3 thrashing by the Hawkeyes in 2016. This time around, Campbell returns with perhaps his best team since coming to Ames. And if last season's game was any indication of what's to come, this year's showdown could be memorable.
"Every year, there’s a lot of talk, a lot of hype about this game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said following last season’s game. “I think it’s good for our entire state. There’s no doubt about that. Today certainly lived up to all that hype. It was a heck of a football game. Both teams competed extremely hard. It was hard fought back and forth, obviously. Both teams really left everything they had out there.”
Sept. 15: Oklahoma at Iowa State, Jack Trice Stadium, 11 a.m.
Why it matters: Iowa State’s last meeting with Oklahoma ended with the Cyclones walking away with one of the biggest wins in program history. It also jump-started perhaps the greatest season in school history.
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Iowa State’s 38-31 win over the third-ranked Sooners last season was the Cyclones’ first victory in Norman since 1990 and marked the start of four straight wins. The victory seemingly caught everyone off guard, but the next time the two teams tangle, Iowa State will surely have the attention of Oklahoma and this time around, quarterback Kyle Kempt and the rest of the Cyclones won’t be unknowns to the rest of the nation.
“Besides the people in the locker room and the people that made the trip, no one gave us a realistic chance,” Kempt said after last year’s win. “It’s part of the reason there’s a big chip on our shoulder.”
Sept. 22: Wisconsin at Iowa, Kinnick Stadium, start time to be determined
Why it matters: It might be the biggest game on Iowa’s schedule. The Iowa vs. Wisconsin showdown gives fans a chance to see two of the best teams in the Big Ten Confernce and one of the best players in the nation.
The Badgers, who have won the last two meetings, took care of Iowa easily with a 38-14 win over the Hawkeyes last season. An Iowa win this season could be even harder. The Badgers return most of their weapons on offense including tailback Jonathan Taylor who rushed for 157 yards against the Hawkeyes. Taylor finished the season with 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns on his way to a sixth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The Hawkeyes have their own big weapon in quarterback Nate Stanley, a native of Wisconsin, who threw for 2,437 yards and 26 touchdowns last season but struggled in last year's Badger game. And he wasn't the only one.
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"We're not a bad team," Ferentz said after last season's loss. "And they made us look bad tonight. That's a credit to them."
Sept. 29: Simpson at Wartburg, Walston-Hoover Stadium, 1 p.m.
Why it matters: This could be a breakout season and game for Simpson. The Storm have gotten better since coach Matt Jeter took over. After winning three games in 2016, Simpson went 5-5 in 2017 and won three of its final five games. Jeter returns five all-conference players to his roster including running back Cam Bunting, who rushed for 1,049 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017.
A win over Wartburg would really show they’re making moves since the Knights were picked to win the American Rivers Conference with a roster that includes six starters coming back on offense and six coming back on defense. The last time they met, Wartburg trailed at halftime but went on to win, 40-31.
"There’s a lot of balance in the conference," Wartburg coach Rick Willis said. "Certainly our game with Simpson a year ago was a really good ballgame, a tight ballgame. So I think fairly early in the season, that is going to be a big game for both teams and certainly one that we’ll be excited about.”
Oct. 6: North Dakota State at Northern Iowa, UNI-Dome, 1 p.m.
Why it matters: North Dakota State is the gold standard of Football Championship Subdivision programs. The Bison are not only the reigning FCS national champions, but they’re also the reigning Missouri Valley Football Conference champions now for nearly a decade now. They’ve won at least a share of seven straight MVFC crowns. And guess what: They’re the preseason favorites to do it again.
Northern Iowa will get a shot to take down Iowa native Chris Kleiman’s squad but it won’t be easy. The Bison not only have history by their side, having won their last three meetings with the Panthers, but a ton of experience coming back including star quarterback Easton Stick, who tossed for 2,466 yards and 28 touchdowns last season.
"That game, no matter where it is or when it is, is going to be a battle," said Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley. "When (former NDSU) coach (Craig) Bohl showed up, it turned into a battle and the last few years it has always gone down to the last play. Whether it is home or away, there are going to be a lot of very good players on the field, it is going to be a very intense football game, and it will probably be one of those games that is determined by the intensity as (much as) by the players themselves."
Oct. 13: Independence at Iowa Western, Titan Stadium, 1 p.m.
Why it matters: Two of the best community colleges and one of the most well-known teams will go head-to-head in Council Bluffs. First, there’s the off-the-field headliner in Independence, which gained national attention when Netflix decided to feature the school in its latest season of the reality show “Last Chance U.” The school and the stars of the show didn’t disappoint.
The Pirates and their polarizing coach Jason Brown went 9-2 last season, including a loss to Iowa Western. Well, the show is reportedly coming back to Independence for another season and the team is coming to Iowa Western to take on the Reivers who are coming off an 11-1 season and a win in the Graphic Edge Bowl. The Reivers, who have become one of the top junior-college teams in the nation, will likely be one of the biggest stops on the team’s schedule.
"Looking forward to a competitive game against an extremely talented team," Strohmeier said. "I expect them to be ready and I’m sure they’ll be reminded of last year’s game throughout the week."
Oct. 20: Central at Wartburg, Walston-Hoover Stadium, 1:30 p.m.
Why it matters: It’ll be a big weekend at Wartburg with plenty on the line for both teams who enter the season with high hopes. Wartburg, the reigning champs of the American Rivers Conference, was picked to finish first in the preseason coaches' poll. Right behind them is Central.
The Knights went 12-1 last season and 8-0 in conference play with a 44-20 win over the Dutch. If you love quarterbacks, you’ll love the two terrific ones in this game. Wartburg quarterback Matt Sacia, who passed for 201 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s game, is back. Central also returns a prolific passer in Ankeny native Blaine Hawkins, who had a strong freshman season with 1,691 passing yards and 18 touchdowns.
“Everybody knows, I think, that that’s one of the big games every year,” Willis said. “Sometimes it has fallen at the end of the year when things are truly on the line. But I think everybody knows that that’s going to be one of the games that has a lot to do with how the conference race comes out. So, I think it’s kind of a game that everyone has marked on their calendars, an exciting game for both schools, both teams and both communities.”
Oct: 27: Concordia at Morningside, Elwood Olson Stadium, 1 p.m.
Why it matters: Morningside has won seven straight Great Plains Athletic Conference championships and will face one of its toughest tests in Concordia — a squad that finished 6-4 last season, including 5-3 in conference play. Morningside dominated the last meeting with a 35-0 win.
Morningside quarterback Trent Solsma, who broke three school records last season and tied the NAIA national record with 55 touchdown passes, is back this year and ready to etch his name in the record books even more.
"I think Concordia has definitely been turning the corner," Morningside coach Steve Ryan said. "I think defensively they always play tough, they always play physical football and that always gives them a chance to win."
Nov. 3: San Diego at Drake, Drake Stadium, 12:30 p.m.
Why it matters: Drake is coming off its most successful season during coach Rick Fox’s five seasons at the helm. In 2017, Drake finished 7-4 overall and 6-2 in Pioneer Football League play. The only team better than the Bulldogs: San Diego. That’s no surprise since San Diego has won at least a share of four straight PFL titles and hasn’t lost a conference game since 2015. The last time Drake beat San Diego came back in 2012, when the Bulldogs shared the PFL crown.
Drake could put an end to that salty streak thanks to several strong weapons returning on offense. Back for his third season starting is quarterback Grant Kramer who threw for 20 touchdowns last season. Also returning is Steven Doran, who is one of the league’s top four returning receivers in 2017.
"They are a great football team and we are a good football team," said Fox. "We will have to show up and play our kind of football to give a chance to win. So, our game against San Diego on Nov. 3 will be a great one to come watch."
Nov. 10: William Penn at Grand View, Williams Stadium, noon
Why it matters: There aren’t many chances to see the Vikings at home this season. With just five home games on the schedule, this one might be the best time to see them. Fitting since it is a trophy game between the two schools and when Grand View closes out the regular season against William Penn, there could be a lot on the line.
The Vikings are coming off a 9-3 season that saw them go 4-1 in conference play and share the Heart of America Athletic Conference’s north division title. Head coach Mike Woodley has built a winner. Ever since joining the Heart of America Conference three seasons ago, the Vikings have claimed the North Division Championship in all three years. They’ll be in contention for a fourth with 13 starters coming back for the Vikings, who enter the season ranked No. 10 in the NAIA coaches’ top-25 preseason poll.
"It comes down to us winning the league and we always have to beat them to do it," Woodley said.
Nov. 17: Missouri State at Northern Iowa, UNI-Dome, 4 p.m.
Why it matters: It’s one of the few home games taking place in Iowa that week and it’s the last time fans will get to see the Panthers in the regular season. Northern Iowa closes out the regular season with an opponent the Panthers have dominated recently, rattling off 12 straight wins. Their last meeting ended with a 25-10 win by the Panthers.
The regular-season finale for the Panthers could have major implications for where they end up in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Expectations are once again high for Mark Farley’s team with the Panthers opening the season ranked No. 1 in the American Football Coaches Association Preseason FCS Coaches Poll.
"You don’t know where you are going to be and what kind of momentum you have at that time," Farley said. "Records will dictate how big that game is once you get that deep into the season."
Nov. 23: Nebraska at Iowa, Kinnick Stadium, 11 a.m.
Why it matters: The Black Friday tradition continues and the rivalry finally has some new life to it. The Hawkeyes have won three straight and four of the last five matchups between the two programs. But all that may not matter anymore.
New Nebraska coach Scott Frost has brought a ton of excitement around Nebraska football and the Cornhuskers will need everything they can get. The last meeting ended with Iowa thumping Nebraska, 56-14, in 2017. A day later, Nebraska coach Mike Riley was fired. He was replaced by Frost, who is hoping to compete and compete quickly for a Big Ten title but already has a lot of questions he still needs answered with his team. Still, the Iowa game is something he's already looking forward to.
“Got a lot of respect for Coach Ferentz,” Frost said at Big Ten media days. “I think he does a good job and he does it the right way. But we’re going to be getting better every day, and we’re going to be ready for that challenge."