Predicting win totals forces people to make assumptions they may or may not be comfortable making. Schedule gazing is, even for the most insightful college football minds out there, standard stuff. Everyone looks at their favorite team’s upcoming slate and tries to map out how many wins are in store for the coming season. In doing so, we make assumptions about which games are “guaranteed wins” and which games our teams are more likely to lose. Assumptions, I tell you! It’s an annual rite of preseason college football existence. I can empathize.

The disease has afflicted InsideNU HQ: today, Kevin and I are going to make some assumptions about Northwestern’s season. We’re going to predict which game on the schedule is most likely to be Northwestern’s biggest “trap game.” The definition is open to interpretation, and plenty of your own assumptions. Don’t hold back your opinions; our comment section curators tell us they’d very much like your input.

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Michigan State

My understanding of the words “trap game” has always included one good or great team, another less–heralded team and – the most important part – a hazardous scheduling quirk that puts the game between them either before, after or in between two putatively more challenging contests so as to induce the favored team to overlook its lesser opponent. The better team has its eye on the bigger challenge; it overlooks a less daunting opponent in the emotional aftermath of a big win, or in perfunctorily preparing for a prospectively easy adversary. Inexplicable losses are an ironclad component of every college football season. You know this.

We’re only able to make these distinctions if we make assumptions about certain teams. Two months away from the start of the season, the knowledge we have to inform our preseason analysis is thinner than it otherwise would be in the middle of the season. As difficult as picking one single biggest “trap game” on Northwestern’s schedule might seem at this early juncture, after making my case for Northwestern’s “most important game” earlier this month, my choice jumped off the page. It’s Michigan State.

The game, scheduled Saturday November 23 in Evanston, takes place after two pivotal Leaders Division contests, the first at Nebraska, followed by a home date with Michigan. Northwestern probably needs to win one or both of those games to hang in contention for the division crown. However they emerge from that two-game stretch, the Wildcats run the risk of undoing their progress one week later against the Spartans, another Legends opponent.

The rap about last season’s MSU team has solidified into accepted Big Ten preseason wisdom: the Spartans lost a bunch of close games last season. This is true! Michigan State did lose five games by four points or less. They also won four games by that same margin, meaning the argument that Michigan State’s disappointing 7-5 record last season might have had less to do with sheer misfortune than most are willing to remember.

2013 is a new season, and MSU will field another elite defense, a comparatively weaker offense and bring the optimistic mindset that – because of all of last season’s painfully close defeats – the spindles of fate will be plucked in the Spartans’ favor this year, resulting in more wins, fewer four-points-or-less defeats and a much-improved record and postseason destination to show for it.

Getting revenge on the Wildcats would be a good way to help reverse last season’s unsatisfactory season performance, and Northwestern, coming off two Legends games with likely conference championship implications, might just be inclined to overlook the Spartans. That would be the argument you’d make for Michigan State beating Northwestern (in the absence of a lengthy matchup-by-matchup breakdown), and so it will stand as the argument for Northwestern’s “trap game” tumble in 2013.

The Big Ten season could flip this logic on its head; by November 23, Michigan State – who, remember, brings back one of the best defenses in the country – could be neck and neck with Northwestern in the Legends race. Perhaps the Wildcats won’t even be in contention at that point of the season. These are the sorts of problems you run into with the assumptions I spoke about earlier: it’s exceedingly difficult to make predictions like this so far in advance.

If preseason consensus holds, and Northwestern is fighting Michigan and Nebraska at the top of the Legends standings in late November (with Michigan State a game or two behind), the home matchup with the Spartans has all the makings of a massive season-foiling trap door. Michigan State will be ready. Northwestern will need to be in order to avoid this prediction’s potentially season-altering realization.

- Chris Johnson

Iowa

Oh how the tables have turned. A decade ago, Iowa was the team that had to watch out for the Northwestern game on the schedule. The Wildcats always seemed to be the ultimate trap game for the Hawkeyes, and they eventually “trapped” Iowa so much that the game ended up just becoming another guaranteed tough game, rather than a trap game.

This year, however, NU is projected to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten, while Iowa struggled to a 4-8 record last year and is rebuilding this season. NU is a better team than Iowa, plain and simple, but the Hawkeyes do have a lot of young, but talented pieces that could ultimately trip up the Wildcats if they aren’t careful.

First of all, it’s an away game, and it’s always a tough environment in Kinnick Stadium. It won’t be quite as electric as the last time NU visited Iowa City, since that game was at night, but it will still be a sellout crowd in a stadium that holds noise better than just about any stadium out there. The game is also the week before a presumably much bigger roadtrip — Nebraska — so there’s always the potential for NU to “look ahead.”

But home field advantage and the rest of the schedule only have so much of an impact on the game, and the play on the field is what will ultimately be have the biggest say in the outcome of the game. As I mentioned above, NU is the better, more experienced team, but Iowa shouldn’t be as bad as most people think. On defense, the Hawkeyes have one of the better linebacker groups in the league and a much more experienced and talented defensive line than they had last year, which will help them do at least a little bit better against the Kain Colter-Venric Mark duo than they did last year.

Offensively, Iowa is breaking in a new quarterback, but to be fair, most Hawkeyes fans probably wanted that to happen last year, anyways. The Iowa passing offense won’t be great, and a receiver really needs to step up — early money is on wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley or tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz — but it’s hard to see how it could be worse than last year. Plus, as long as AIRBHG doesn’t strike — what am I saying? Of course he/it will — Iowa has a really solid group of running backs, including Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri, who have all started at one point in their careers. If this team can actually put everything together, it won’t be all that bad. It’s young, but it’s fairly talented.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had some interesting thoughts on last year’s 28-17 loss to Northwestern, via the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

“I think our most representative loss we had was to Northwestern (28-17). That ballgame was more than double digits, or at least double digits I should say. I think you go back and look at that game, it was two evenly matched teams, at least in my mind, two evenly matched teams. I think you could pick out six, seven, eight plays in there that could have made a difference, would have made a difference, but we didn’t get the job done. To me they’re a team, they went on and won 10 games last year. Their losses were very competitive and simply because they did a good job of their execution and then on the other side of the coin, we didn’t.”

Ferentz is a little biased when he says Iowa and NU were evenly matched last year. They weren’t — not close — and they won’t be again this year. However, if Iowa is the team that executes when it needs to next year, and the Wildcats fail to show up on the field in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes are definitely capable of giving NU a scare or maybe even stealing the game.

- Kevin Trahan

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