This season, Iowa looks to improve on its 8-5 record from a year ago and compete with Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. That journey starts with what could be an interesting nonconference game with Northern Illinois, one of the better teams in the Mid-American Conference who isn’t afraid of taking on Power 5 big boys.

The Hawkeyes return quarterback Nate Stanley and are strong at wide receiver, defensive line and the secondary. There are a few issues elsewhere, though, and we’ll see how that plays out, starting with the opener (Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET; TV: Big Ten Network)

Here are five things we really have to see from Iowa in Week 1:

1. Revamped offensive line must overcome suspensions

Iowa might be favored by 9.5 points in Saturday’s opener, but the Hawkeyes should be on upset alert because there’s a very real potential for a problem along the line of scrimmage. The Hawks are without starting tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson, who each have been suspended for one game for violating team rules.

That could be a problem. Northern Illinois has a great defensive line, led by senior defensive end Sutton Smith, who had 14 sacks a year ago. One national website even listed the NIU defensive line as one of the 10-best in the country. That’s high praise. The backups will need play like starters on Saturday.

2. Nate Stanley has to play like a veteran, and stay healthy

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley is a veteran now, and if he’s going to feel added pressure with a depleted offensive line, he’s going to need to make smart, quick decisions and not be forced into making any turnovers.

He’s certainly capable. Last year he threw for 2,437 yards and 26 touchdowns, and only had six interceptions all year. He didn’t have a single multi-interception game. Expect more of the same this year. He’ll need to make the big throws when necessary and get the Hawkeyes in and out of bad situations.

3. Running backs need to set the tone for the season

Last year’s top running backs are gone, so it’s up to a new group to step up and run well behind this offensive line that should be pretty good once everyone is back in the lineup.

It should be running back by committee early, since there’s a lot of young but talented players in that position group. I’m looking for Ivory Kelly-Martin to make some big plays. Saturday, someone will have to break a run or two to keep Northern Illinois’ defense on its heals and, of course, there can be no fumbles. Some help in the passing game will be nice, too.

4. Unproven linebackers need to solidify defense

Attrition has hit this position group hard, as the Hawkeyes said goodbye to three talented senior linebackers. It’s a whole new group now, and they need to hit the ground running.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker and linebackers coach Seth Wallace seem to have viable options in junior Amani Jones and sophomore Nick Niemann, both of whom showed a lot in the spring and in fall camp. Still, it’s different when the lights come on and they’ll need to step up. Just as importantly, depth will also have to emerge quickly. There’s a spotlight shining brightly here.

5. Late in a close game, someone has to make a big play

This is going to be a common theme for many Big Ten teams this year. Everyone is going to play a lot of close games, and they’re going to come down to someone stepping and making a big play to win a game.

That’s true even in these nonconference tilts. This opener, for reasons mentioned above, will be close, as will the state rivalry showdown next week with Iowa State. So who steps up to make a difference? My guess is one of the underrated wide receivers, Nick Easley or Brandon Smith. They’re both poised to have a big year if Stanley stays healthy.