Big Ten: L.J. Fort

The 2012 football season is rapidly approaching, and to get you ready, we're providing a very early preview of each Week 1 matchup in the Big Ten. Defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin returns to the field -- with a new playing surface, by the way -- at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 1. Montee Ball begins his quest for the Heisman Trophy, Danny O'Brien likely makes his debut at quarterback, and the Badgers start their push toward another Rose Bowl appearance.

Let's see what Week 1 has in store for Bret Bielema's squad.

For more Week 1 matchups, click here.

Week 1 opponent: Northern Iowa

Coach: Mark Farley (12th season, 99-41)

2011 record: 10-3 (7-1 Missouri Valley)

Returning starters: 15 (8 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists)

About the Panthers: Northern Iowa has replaced Southern Illinois as the premier FCS program in the Midwest. Since 2001, the Panthers have recorded six 10-win seasons and claimed seven Missouri Valley Conference titles. They've finished in the FCS Top 25 in 10 of the past 11 years, with six top-5 appearances during the span. But UNI hasn't fared well against FBS foes as of late, and Iowa has won 14 straight against the Panthers. UNI returns most of its core on offense but says goodbye to standout quarterback Tirrell Rennie, who accounted for 23 touchdowns (14 pass, 9 rush) in 2011. Running back David Johnson returns after racking up 822 rush yards and nine touchdowns last fall. The Panthers lose their top three tacklers from 2011, including linebacker L.J. Fort, who led the FCS with an insane 184 total tackles in 2011. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen stood out during the spring game (237 pass yards, 2 TDs).

Random factoid: Northern Iowa is challenging itself right out of the gate, traveling to both Wisconsin and Iowa in the first two weeks. The Panthers have recorded three somewhat recent wins against Iowa State (2007, 1994 and 1992) and boast a 3-0 mark against Kansas State, but they have only one win against a Big Ten opponent (an 11-5 triumph at Iowa in 1898).

Series with Wisconsin: First meeting.

Totally unscientific percentage chance Wisconsin wins: 84 percent. Northern Iowa is a very good FCS program, but it loses several key pieces and must win at a stadium where most FBS programs get pummeled on a regular basis. Wisconsin will be breaking in a new quarterback (most likely O'Brien, the Maryland transfer), but it boasts one of the nation's top rushing attacks and some star power on defense. The Badgers haven't lost at home since midway through the 2009 season, and their ground game will be a handful for a new-look UNI defense.

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