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Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Danny Lawhon take a look at the Hawkeyes' season opener against Northern Illinois. Staff Video, The Register

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — There will be far more important games for the Iowa football team this season than Saturday’s 2:40 p.m. season opener against Northern Illinois.

Divisional matchups against Wisconsin, Northwestern (already 1-0 after winning at Purdue on Thursday night) and Nebraska will be the biggies in deciding whether the Hawkeyes can win the Big Ten West.

But this matchup against the visiting Huskies will not only be tricky, it’ll be telling.

For all the (deserved) praise Kirk Ferentz is receiving this week, with his next win breaking a tie with Hayden Fry as Iowa’s winningest coach, there’s a troubling stat lingering in the background.

Only once in the past eight years have Ferentz’s Hawkeyes finished in the AP Top 25.

A lot of good-not-great seasons have piled up since 2010.

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For this one to have a chance at great, winning a tough home opener Saturday without four suspended lineman is practically a must.

How do the Hawkeyes get it done?

Well, quarterback Nate Stanley offered some clues in interviews this week.

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Hawkeye junior quarterback Nate Stanley discusses his approach to facing the Huskies' dynamic defensive line. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

“We really want to stay out of third and longs,” the junior said, "and really kind of neutralize their rush as much as we can.”

In short: Ball control.

Northern Illinois, led by Sutton Smith (“No. 15” as Stanley referred to him), brings an attacking pass rush that racked up an FBS-best 114 tackles for loss in 2017.

Look for Iowa to try to move the chains behind its running game and quick passes. Receiver Nick Easley could be a busy guy Saturday out of the slot, where he’s spent most of his time during fall camp.

More: Parents, patients anticipate Hawkeye Wave at Iowa football opener

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz isn’t going to want to put Stanley at risk of getting flattened with a ton of slow-developing pass plays.

If the Hawkeyes are getting to third-and-1 more often than third-and-8, they’ll be on track to deliver Ferentz his 144th victory — and probably the game ball once they get to the locker room.

Iowa is favored by 10 points in this matchup, which will be televised on Big Ten Network. The Hawkeyes have covered the spread in only 12 of their last 38 games as a home favorite. They should have enough to get the win, but the Huskies will keep it close.

Prediction: Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 17

Now, for the rest of my Big Ten picks — a feature which returns after I set the bar high by going 53-41-1 against the spread in 2017. And the pressure's really on now with sports gambling now legalized in four states.

Just a reminder: These will be Saturday games only because, you know, we’re still a newspaper.

Let's get to it.

Oregon State (0-0) at No. 3 Ohio State (0-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas line: Ohio State by 38½

Prediction: This spread seems gigantic at first glance, considering the swirl of dysfunction surrounding the Ohio State program. But the Buckeyes’ talent level hasn’t wavered because of the three-game suspension of head coach Urban Meyer. As long as new quarterback Dwayne Haskins can effectively hand off to J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber and complete an occasional seam route, this should be a cathartic blowout for Buckeye Nation. A bad, bad Oregon State team that lost by 34 at home to Minnesota last year should have no trouble losing by 39-plus in the Horseshoe. Ohio State 52, Oregon State 7

No. 21 Texas (0-0) vs. Maryland (0-0) in Landover, Md.

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Texas by 13½

Prediction: As of Friday morning, there was no finality for Maryland coach D.J. Durkin's fate. He remained suspended following an ESPN article investigating the death of player Jordan McNair in practice revealed a "toxic culture" in the football program. So safe to say, this one's hard to read. Maryland has a more talented roster than it did last year when it won by 10 in Austin. Texas should be improved in Tom Herman's second season, but not two touchdowns better on the road. Texas 38, Maryland 28

Kent State (0-0) at Illinois (0-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Illinois by 16½

Prediction: You might have noticed that Kent State was announced this week as an addition to Iowa’s 2021 football schedule. What the Golden Flashes look like in three years at Kinnick Stadium is unknown. But in 2018, we know they’re not very good. In Year 3 under Lovie Smith, Illinois is embracing a faster-paced offense behind new quarterback A.J. Bush. The Illini are the worst team in the Big Ten West, but they’re still skilled enough to win by at least 17 points for the first time since October 2016. Illinois 28, Kent State 10

Texas State (0-0) at Rutgers (0-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Rutgers by 16½

Prediction: Both schools have head coaches entering Year 3, which is often a tell-tale barometer of the program’s health. Rutgers’ Chris Ash has selected true freshman Artur Sitkowski, a four-star recruit from the IMG Academy, to be his starting quarterback. Expect some early choppiness and inconsistency for the Scarlet Knights, who are under their ninth offensive coordinator in nine years. Rutgers 28, Texas State 21

Appalachian State (0-0) at No. 9 Penn State (0-0)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Penn State by 24

Prediction: Appalachian State is a very solid Group of Five program but with four-year starting quarterback Taylor Long departed, Zac Thomas will make his first career start in Beaver Stadium against … Big Ten offensive preseason player of the year Trace McSorley. The quarterback mismatch would seem to make picking Penn State a no-brainer. But the Nittany Lions are breaking in a lot of new skill-position players, and Mountaineers are known for tough defense and a clock-chewing running game. Penn State 30, Appalachian State 14

Indiana (0-0) at Florida International (0-0)

Time, TV: 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Vegas line: Indiana by 10½

Prediction: Indiana might not surpass the five-win mark this season, but the Hoosiers do have an experienced offensive line — and that’s good cargo to haul on the road for a season opener nearly 1,200 miles away. At quarterback, sophomore Peyton Ramsey won a tight three-way derby for the job. FIU, a solid 8-5 in 2017 under first-year coach Butch Davis, is young and should get pushed around in this one. Indiana 31, FIU 17

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The talented senior running back from Sarasota, Fla., is now one of Michigan's top players after flipping his commitment from Iowa in February 2015. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

No. 14 Michigan (0-0) at No. 11 Notre Dame (0-0)

Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., NBC

Vegas line: Notre Dame by 1

Prediction: Michigan hasn’t beaten a ranked team on the road (0-3) under Jim Harbaugh and recently lost top receiver Tarik Black to a broken foot. Meanwhile, Notre Dame returns 15 starters — including quarterback Brandon Wimbush — off a 10-3 team. This is a statement game for both teams who have national-title aspirations. In a dogfight, I’ll take the team with perhaps the best defense in college football. Michigan 21, Notre Dame 19

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The Cornhuskers' first-year head coach addresses the Iowa rivalry and how to make Big Red great again. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Akron (0-0) at Nebraska (0-0)

Time, TV: 7 p.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Nebraska by 26

Prediction: As the hype builds surrounding the Scott Frost era, so has the spread for the new coach’s Husker debut — up six points from the opening line of minus-20. Even big-talking Frost has warned that the rebuild in Lincoln will take a little time. The Huskers will start exciting true freshman Adrian Martinez at quarterback. Akron, 7-7 last year, might have the best defense in the Mid-American Conference. Nebraska 31, Akron 10

Leistikow's ledger

2017 record: 53-41-1 against spread (73-23 straight up)

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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