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Offseason Musings: What Is Northwestern's Most Important Game?

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.


College football’s early round of published preseason predictions got me thinking about the upcoming season. There seems to be a good deal of optimism surrounding Northwestern’s 2013 prospects, but the feeling is not unanimous, or anything close to a shared consensus. Team predictions in June almost always vary along some type of sliding scale, unless said team is so undeniably dominant or so hopelessly woeful that reaching outside the national quorum for a bold win-loss projection just makes you look foolish, or crazy, or like some clicks-hungry pageviews mongerer with nothing else to do but fuel mocking-purposed message board threads and comment section venom.

Most Northwestern predictions I’ve read, listened to or casually discussed are neither ambitiously optimistic or unduly harsh. With the possible exception of a certain subset of Orange-affiliated fans located in a different part of the state, anything from seven to nine regular season wins seems to be the most common projection. The top end of that range might just be enough for a Legends Division title; the bottom will earn Northwestern a repeat trip to a pre-New Years small fast food chain-namesaked bowl of some sort. I haven’t really considered a win-loss forecast for the Wildcats in 2013, but I have looked at their schedule, and I have started thinking about NU’s biggest competition in the Legends Division, and which games it may or may not need to win to challenge for a spot in the Big Ten championship game.

All of Northwestern’s games are important for different reasons. Failing to beat Cal on the road to open the season would dull much of the Wildcats’ considerable offseason momentum. Beating Ohio State at home in the Big Ten opener would convincingly announce the Wildcats’ conference championship potential in a primetime spotlight. Topping Illinois the final game of the season guarantees the winning fan base unmatched bragging rights ammunition for the next 12 months.

It is difficult to break down Northwestern’s schedule from afar, at this early date, and try to reach a firm conclusion on its most important game, because without any in-season evidence – without knowing which teams will fight NU for standings positioning during the stretch run – it’s impossible to pinpoint which games hold the most weight in the Legends Title Race. I have my ideas, and if you’re a college football fan with reflexively excitable early-summer college football emotions (less than three months now; hang in there) you’ve no doubt looked ahead and tried to analyze which fixtures Northwestern absolutely needs to have to break into the Big Ten championship conversation.

My answer might be different than yours, but upon further review, and further, further review, and ten times over, Northwestern’s most important game in 2013, as I see it now, is Michigan.

The reasons are simple: winning a division title means defending your home field in division games. The Wolverines travel to Evanston on November 16. With them, if most preseason projections are to be believed, will be a first or second place spot in the Legends standings. Do we know Michigan will inhabit one of the top two positions in the Legends standings all season? No, but I’m going to go ahead and assume it won’t be far off at that date.

It’s not hard to see why me, and most other preseason prognosticators, feel this way about Michigan. Not only are the Wolverines implementing a pro-style offense with a semi-conventional pocket-inhabiting quarterback (Devin Gardner) for the very first time under Brady Hoke, their defense (particularly if MLB Jake Ryan gets up to speed sometime before this matchup, and all signs point to him doing so) should be one of the best units in the Big Ten, they welcome in a top-10 recruiting class and greatly benefit from a manageable conference schedule. Michigan will be good – a Legends championship is the goal, and a completely reasonable one at that.

So is Northwestern’s, of course, which is the basic point I’m trying to ram home with this admittedly murky argument. Every conference game is important. Every division game is important; away games at Nebraska or Iowa or home to Michigan State are all important contests. Every one of them. But for NU to have any shot at realistically keeping pace with Michigan (again, presumably), beating Iowa and Michigan State kind of goes without saying, and besting the Huskers in Lincoln is an enormous challenge for any team. Winning at Memorial Stadium would be huge; Watching thousands of Huskers diehards slip into a semi-apocalyptic fugue for the second time in three years would rank near the top of anyone’s Pat Fitzgerald-era Northwestern highlights power rankings. And in terms of sheer national resonance, beating conference frontrunner Ohio State – with the possibility of two undefeated teams in primetime, and a rabid Gameday Crowd (and, for Northwestern’s sake, hopefully purple-dominated) on hand – would put Northwestern in the BCS conversation.

National perception and win-loss qualifications are two entirely different things, and generating early BCS buzz is less important than winning the games that matter most for BCS qualification. Beating probable top-Legends threat Michigan at home could end up deciding the division race. It’s a game Northwestern simply can’t afford to let slip out of its hands.