The wait is nearly over. At long last, after eight trying months, the 2013 college football season is upon us. In just 10 days, Northwestern will meet Cal in its primetime season opener. This last week and change can be excruciatingly slow, so to ease your anxiety, we’re rolling out 10 bold predictions, one each day, to lead you into August 31. Some of these may sound crazy (some of them won’t), and we probably won’t be looking back four months from now celebrating our foresight, but preseason sports predictions aren’t meant to be perfect, anyway, and erring on the bold side is much more fun than playing it safe. With that said, let’s begin: the real stuff, the actual football, will be here in no time.
No. 9: Northwestern will sweep the Michigan schools in back-to-back weeks in November.
The most important part of Northwestern’s 2013 schedule is not hard to identify. The Wildcats play three division frontrunners in succession, a three-week stretch beginning Nov. 2 with a road trip to Nebraska and ending Nov. 23 at home against Michigan State. Northwestern’s Legends Division title hopes could well be decided by what happens in these three games: win all three, and NU should have a great shot at getting to Indianapolis; lose them (or two of them), and the Wildcats likely will have played their way out of Legends contention.
None of these games will be easy. Two of the teams (Michigan, Nebraska) are ranked above Northwestern in both major polls, and there is a general feeling Michigan State – which returns one of the best defenses in the country – will rebound from last season’s disappointing 7-6 campaign and move closer to its recent 11-win comfort zone.
My first inclination when brainstorming today’s “bold” prediction was to aim for the fences and pick the Wildcats to win all three November Legends games. I stopped short of that for a couple of reasons. 1) I don’t think Northwestern can win all three games; 2) These predictions are supposed to be bold, but not totally unrealistic. Winning consecutive home games in November against two top-25 caliber teams – one of whom NU beat on the road last year, one of whom it lost to in agonizing fashion – is, let’s just say, audacious, but it’s also reasonable. Doing that on the heels of winning in Lincoln against one of the most explosive offenses in the country is probably asking a bit too much. I know, I know: 2011 happened. But what are the chances that happens again? Reaching further, what are the chances it happens right before NU knocks off Michigan and Michigan State? I’m dubious. Your mileage may vary.
The two-week Michigan school gauntlet isn’t just the subject of today’s topic. It’s also arguably the most important fortnight of Northwestern’s season. If Northwestern loses to Nebraska – and I don’t think my opinion on NU’s chances in Lincoln need repeating; if you’re confused, see the above graf – it will probably need to beat both Michigan schools just to keep pace in the division title chase.
All three of these schools have favorable schedules. Nebraska gets Purdue and Illinois as crossover games. Michigan State gets Purdue and Indiana. And Michigan plays Michigan State and Nebraska at home. The Wildcats drew arguably the toughest possible crossover pairing (Wisconsin and Ohio State) and play their three most difficult division games in a rigorous three-week crucible in November, at which point injuries and general fatigue could leave Northwestern playing well below its best form. The sheer timing of those games is brutal enough. That they will also (in all likelihood) turn NU’s conference championship hopes makes them even more daunting.
That’s why winning the last two of those games (vs. Michigan Nov. 16, vs. Michigan State Nov. 23) is, even for the most bullish NU fans, a bold prediction. There is so much riding on them – so much to play for, and so much to lose. The Wildcats do get a convenient bye-week after the Nebraska trip, which should be hugely helpful in ironing out any minor injury concerns before the two games of interest, but the task is no less demanding.
The Michigan games will not be easy, and winning them both, Nebraska game aside, will put Northwestern in a very good place heading into the Land of Lincoln finale in Champaign. If they can pull it off, the Legends crown (and subsequent conference championship game invite) could be in play.