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Northwestern's Season Opener with Boston College: NU's Most Important Game?

It's a long way away. A looong way away. But let's keep talking about a game we've already been talking about all summer. 

Northwestern kicks things off September 3 at Boston College. I'll be there, which sadly prevents me from attending Rock the Bells, which looks to once again be the dopest music festival possible. The other day, Off-Tackle Empire overwhelmingly pronounced the game the most important in the league week one, and I can't disagree. 

In past years, Northwestern has opened without much to fear: It's been since 2004 that NU lost a season opener, and when you're bringing in teams like Northeastern, Towson, Syracuse, Ohio, and Miami of Ohio, that's not surprising. The mere fact that NU is playing a decent team - Boston College - and on the road in a different time zone makes the game more intriguing. But the circumstances surrounding the game have me anxious as hell. Can't wait another month. 

1) Northwestern's out-of-conference schedule is soft. 

Baby's bottom. A fanpost over at OTE points out that NU has the weakest one in the Big Ten. That's generally true, as evidenced by the fact that NU has gone 11-1 in out-of-conference games since I done got to college. 

NU shouldn't be troubled by FCS Eastern Illinois. Rice, as we saw last year, isn't much of a threat either, especially not in November in Evanston. Army is a little bit scarier as a team that runs the triple option - which is tough to defend - but is going to be an inferior team athletically, not on the level of your average BCS opponent. 

Meanwhile, by all standards, BC is an average BCS opponent. Pre-Snap Read has them at No. 62 out of 120. It's not just a plausible out-of-conference loss, it's the plausible out-of-conference loss. I'd argue that its the most difficult out-of-conference matchup Northwestern has faced over that 11-1 span I mentioned earlier. (NU shouldn't have lost to Syracuse in '09. Just so happened an unknown redshirt freshman had to start at corner against Mike Williams. Still bitter and frightening.) Northwestern just doesn't play average-ish teams out-of-conference that often. 

If NU played four difficult out-of-conference games, I wouldn't sweat the BC game that much. Each game would be a dogfight, a battle for NU's bowl hopes. As it is, with just about 2.75 wins guaranteed out of the other three games, this one terrifies me. You go 4-0 out-of-conference, you can tell half your wide receiving corps to shotgun beers on the sideline of every game and still expect to stumble drunkenly to victory over Minnesota and Indiana and end up in some bowl somewhere, and a .500 record in-conference would pretty much guarantee bowling someplace nice and warm.

3-1, things are scary. Last year took nailbiters against Iowa and Minny to maintain three wins in an eight-game Big Ten slate and the Cats ended up in the worst bowl the Big Ten had available. (Besides Detroit which I pretend doesn't exist.) Any fun concepts of a successful Big Ten season seem pretty fragile. 

2) Boston College has a scary schedule: 

To them, Northwestern is one of the lighter games, with a dastardly road schedule giving them Phil Steele's No. 6 toughest slate in the country. Although Notre Dame probably sucks.

3) Indication factor

Let's be honest. Nobody has any clue what Northwestern is going to look at. I've said it once or probably eight times and I'll say it again, 10-2 and 5-7 seem equally plausible to me. Dan Persa could be the Messianic figure who had NU at 7-3 with potentially avoidable losses after having Penn State and eventual Big XI champions Michigan State dead to rights, and could lead NU to the proverbial land of milk and honey, AKA the Lukas Oil Dome in Indianapolis. Or he could have a mangled Achilles tendon, NU could spend 39 minutes of every game on defense while Pat Fitzgerald sits in the locker room, peers out the window at a burning house being looted by drug-addicted teenagers fearless of the flames but terrified they won't live to see their next high, debating whether to go with SIEMIEN or  38-YEAR OLD CARNY SLEEPING ON THE LOCKER ROOM FLOOR BECAUSE IT'S WARM IN HERE at QB1 against Rice. 

Every season opener serves as a Magic 8 ball. But recently, NU's season openers haven't done much in the predictive department. You could shake them up in May and get an ALL SIGNS POINT TO YES, then again in June and get a MY SOURCES SAY YES and then in September and get HOLY CRAP NOBODY CARES ITS TOWSON GET OVER IT, leading you to wonder how many children the good people at Magic 8 ball must turn off to Northwestern sports by making that one of the 25 or so canned options. But either way the win was meaningless. Sure, we could say "man, we only won by 34" or interpret last year's close W against Vandy to be a sign of malaise to come, but, for the most part, the season before Big Ten season hasn't been required viewing to learn the tale of the Wildcats in any particular year. The wins told us nothing.

This year, I'm shaking up the 8 ball and it's hazy, this coming in a year we're hazier about NU's potential than seemingly ever. A win against BC will be a sign of a progressing team with the cojones to win on the road. A loss a sign we're trailing towards our unenrolled carny dystopia. 

4) October 5, 2007

That date is the last time Northwestern had a losing record in football. NU was 2-3 after back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan, not to mention a loss to Duke that was no good for anybody. The next day, NU would beat Michigan State in overtime to go to 3-3, the next week, they'd beat Minnesota in overtime in a game which I believe is the first Northwestern sporting event I recall watching. (I had applied early decision and was tentative to root for the Cats because I had been told by my college counselor just about 100 times that my grades weren't good enough to get me in. Hah.) NU would run off three straight and close the season 6-6, then open up 5-0, 4-2, and 5-0 in years hence. Below .500 hasn't been in reach for a while, but NU could start off the season 0-1. 

That's coming up on four years without the Wildcats having a losing record in football. Beating BC will go a long way towards ensuring that never happens again.