Northwestern and the Big Ten released the 2018 and 2019 conference schedules and you’ve likely already read Kevin’s instant reaction. I wanted to touch on a few potential implications of these schedules. Keep in mind that only the conference games are truly set. Non-conference scheduling is always subject to change.
Thanks to Mark Rudner of the Big Ten, we now know that the 2018 Notre Dame game is scheduled for November 3. No date was ever publicly announced when the two schools agreed to the 2014/2018 home and home series, but since the league had to work around a date in November for this previously scheduled game and the only open week in November 2018 is November 3, it’s safe to say that the game is still on and that is when we’ll see the Irish in Evanston.
The 2018 schedule will feature just one off week, but like 2013 and 2014, the 2019 calendar will provide the Wildcats two weeks of rest during the season. With Northwestern playing at Purdue on September 1, 2018 and hosting Notre Dame on November 3, 2018, we will have three open dates in weeks two through four which will accommodate two non-conference games and an off week. It’s safe to say that Northwestern will try to target week four for their open date, giving them an extra week to recover and prepare for Michigan, and avoid leaving week two open.
In 2019, Northwestern currently has open dates for weeks one through three and week seven, which falls between a trip to Nebraska and a home game against Ohio State. Again, I think it’s safe to say they will want to leave that October date open, so look for Northwestern to try and schedule their non-conference opponents for weeks one and two, perhaps one and three if necessary.
Five games in Evanston and a modern day attendance average record in 2018?
In addition to the Notre Dame series, Northwestern also previously scheduled a home and home series with Rice for 2017 and 2018, but the locations were not announced. Northwestern will have five conference home games in 2017 with a trip to Duke and a yet to be scheduled home opponent. In 2018, the Wildcats will only have four conference home games with Notre Dame and Duke coming to town. This is not ideal, but I think it could work out well for Northwestern.
My guess is that Rice will come to Evanston in 2017 and host Northwestern in 2018. That would make Northwestern’s home schedule for 2017 more quantity than quality. They would have seven home games, six in Evanston and one at Wrigley (more on this later), consisting of Rice, a likely one-off non-con opponent, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue, and Minnesota. None of these games are guaranteed sellouts, so having seven home games will be important for revenue.
We could have only six home games in 2018, five in Evanston and one at Wrigley. Yet this would also be a ticket office’s dream. Duke, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Illinois could surpass the modern day attendance average record of 42,310 if the program doesn’t take a step back between now and then. It’s very possible Northwestern could have four home sellouts (Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Illinois if at Wrigley) and a strong crowd with potential for a sellout in Wisconsin. The season ticket base should grow significantly for that season, which would also increase the attendance for any non-sellouts. And since the Duke game could be the only game of the year that is not a sellout, many fans without season tickets will have to settle on that if they want to come to a game at all in 2018.
There is one important factor to keep in mind. According to a report by the Daily Northwestern in March, Northwestern promised the city of Evanston that they will only play at Wrigley if there are at least seven home games, leaving at least six to be played at Ryan Field. If this is true, it seems as if there are four main possibilities for the 2018 schedule:
1) Northwestern does not play at Wrigley in 2018, which would keep the Illinois game in Evanston
2) Northwestern plays at Rice in 2017, hosts Rice in 2018, and makes changes to the agreement with Duke, which currently alternates road, home, road, home from 2015-2018
3) Northwestern hosts Rice in 2017 but moves the return date to another year, instead opting to find a different program to bring to Evanston in 2018
4) The Rice series is canceled altogether, allowing Northwestern to find a home opponent for both 2017 and 2018
This would also affect the 2016 schedule and potentially all schedules in even numbered years in which we have one road non-conference game scheduled. I would not be opposed to playing at Wrigley every other year instead of in five consecutive years. It would keep it a bit fresher.
I’m going to make two assumptions here for the sake of simplicity. The first is that Northwestern will not play at Wrigley in 2014. This is still quite possible and you can read my thoughts on whether they should host Michigan or Illinois at Wrigley that year here. The most important points from that article relevant here are that Northwestern will want to avoid hosting Illinois at Wrigley since students will be gone on Thanksgiving weekends, they don’t want to help out the Illini with exposure, and they don’t want to lose a sure sellout in Evanston.
The second assumption is that the five games at Wrigley will be played in consecutive years. As I just mentioned, if Northwestern only manages to secure six home games in 2018, they may not be able to move a game to Wrigley and would skip a year. This may actually be the preference of Northwestern, not just Evanston. But let’s say that the games at Wrigley are played from 2015-2019.
Here are the November possibilities for potential games at Wrigley:
2015 – Penn State (November 7), Purdue (November 14)
2016 – Wisconsin (November 5), Illinois (November 26), No Wrigley game
2017 – Purdue (November 11), Minnesota (November 18)
2018 – Notre Dame (November 3), Illinois (November 24/Thanksgiving weekend), No Wrigley game
2019 – Purdue (November 9), Minnesota (November 23)
Beyond the points I just outlined, I think it’s also safe to assume that Northwestern will try to avoid repeating an opponent at Wrigley during this five game stretch. As a result, here is what I believe will be the likely Wrigley opponents for each season if a game at Wrigley is played:
2015 – Penn State
Purdue and Minnesota are the only two possibilities for 2017 and 2019, so Purdue will likely be at Wrigley in one of those two seasons. Penn State is also unlikely to sell out Ryan Field, yet could help this game get a good TV assignment.
2016 – Wisconsin/No Game
It’s hard to predict what kind of crowd Wisconsin will draw for their 2014 trip to Evanston. Regardless, Northwestern will likely have a stronger motivation to keep Illinois out of Wrigley, allow the students to attend the game, and keep Illinois as an option for 2018. However, since Northwestern only has four conference and two non-conference home games, they may not be able to play at Wrigley in 2016.
2017 – Purdue/Minnesota
This one is a coin flip. The team that does not play at Wrigley in 2017 will play at Wrigley in 2019.
2018 – Illinois/No Game
Jim Phillips didn’t work that hard to get Notre Dame to Evanston, not Soldier Field, only to have the game move to Wrigley. If a Wrigley game does take place in 2018, it will be Illinois on Thanksgiving weekend. Students will be gone, but it’s the only move. Of course, playing at Wrigley in 2018 may not be possible and with these two options, Northwestern may be happy to push it out to 2020. But if Northwestern really can’t move a game to Wrigley unless they play at least six in Evanston, we may be looking at 2021.
2019 – Purdue/Minnesota
The team that didn’t play at Wrigley in 2017 will be the choice for 2019
Jonathan Hodges made a great catch and noticed that the BTN accidentally made available the complete composite schedule, which includes unannounced and potentially unofficial non-conference opponents. The schedule has been pulled, but you can read Hodges’ notes in the comments section here.
First, the vanishing return date from Army that was previously scheduled for 2015 now appears set for 2019.
But more importantly, Northwestern currently has the Rice series scheduled for home in 2017 and on the road in 2018. If this happens, Northwestern will have six home dates in 2018 and game at Wrigley may not be possible.