UNI Football Makes Puzzling Scheduling Move For Coming Seasons
It's common for FCS football programs across the country to play an FBS football program once during non-conference play.
It's an opportunity for the FBS program to get a tune-up game before they take on competition that is usually at their level. Plus, the FCS programs -- which don't make anywhere near the revenue of their FBS counterparts -- typically get paid upwards of $500,000 to take what most assume to be a guaranteed loss.
For those unfamiliar, FCS is essentially the equivalent of a mid-major program in college basketball. So, when UNI plays Iowa or Iowa State early in the football season, it's often considered to be a money grab by the small school and a chance to start the season with an easy win for the big one.
That's why it's so puzzling that the Panthers have officially scheduled to play both in-state, FBS programs in 2026, per FBSchedules.com. They'll play Iowa State on September 5 and Iowa on September 19. UNI has never played both in the same season.
For entertainment purposes, exposure for the UNI football program, the pocketbooks of UNI Athletics (who will receive $700,000 for playing Iowa in 2026), and folks like me who get to cover games like this in person, it's awesome. But when winning is difficult enough in the toughest conference across the FCS -- the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) -- the move is... strange.
To put the challenge of playing in the MVFC in perspective, at one point during the season last year, seven of the top-ranked teams in all of the FCS were in the MVFC. Six of the 24 teams that made the FCS playoffs were from the MVFC. North Dakota State, who has won nine of the last eleven FCS Championships, is in the MVFC. One of the two years the Bison didn't make it to the title game, South Dakota State, who's also in the MVFC did.
The drastic upper hand in resources, nationwide recruiting advantage, and the fact that the Hawkeyes and Cyclones would never come to the UNI-Dome to play, make the odds against the Panthers difficult to surmount.
And, for the record, upsets do happen -- I often think back to when the UNI went into Ames and came out with a 25-20 victory over the Cyclones in 2016.
Even over the last two years, Northern Iowa has given two ranked ISU teams a hell of a scare. Behind the effort of now-transferred quarterback Will McElvain, the Panthers came up just short of No. 21 ISU in three overtimes, 29-26 in 2019. They then dropped their 2021 season opener to the No. 7 Cyclones, 16-10.
More often than not though, these games aren't exactly close. Over the eight UNI losses between 2001 and 2017, Iowa State won by an average of 18.25 points. Three of those losses came without the Panthers scoring a single point. ISU leads the series between the two state schools, 16-10.
In the last 17 matchups with the Hawkeyes, UNI has yet to come out victorious. Iowa leads the series 17-1, with the lone win by the Panthers coming in 1898. Other than one ridiculously close game in 2009 (that included back-to-back blocked field goals by the Iowa special teams unit with less than ten seconds to go) where the Hawks won 17-16, the Panthers have lost by an average of 25.7 points over their last seven contests. In their last matchup in 2018, Iowa took the victory 38-14.
For a program that regularly has some of the top talent in the FCS, has the chance to compete for a national title every single year, and plays in the toughest conference in the country, adding two Goliath programs to an already arduous schedule is puzzling.
The next time UNI plays Iowa State is 2023, and the Panthers have also scheduled two FBS programs in Hawaii and Nebraska for back-to-back weeks in 2024.