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. 3: Northwestern will lose a game it’s not expected to.
Upsets happen all the time in college football. Favored teams take their opponents too lightly, or a plucky underdog forces a mess of turnovers. Maybe blustery conditions throw an otherwise normal game into utter chaos. Prolific offenses stall out. Defenses miss tackles. Appalachian State had this dude named Armanti Edwards. Every season has its share of unexpected outcomes.
In 2012, Northwestern was never upset – at least not in any strict definition of the term. The only game that could be reasonably considered mildly shocking was the Penn State loss, but as we quickly came to learn, Bill O’Brien’s team was actually quite a bit better than most presumed entering the season. Losing to Penn State wasn’t a great look, but I wouldn’t call it an upset. Northwestern’s other two losses were less shocks than expected results. Sure, Nebraska winning in Evanston was no guarantee, and Michigan was basically forced to transform its entire offseason mid-season after Denard Robinson injured his elbow. But neither of those outcomes were particularly surprising. To the outside world, they reinforced the natural Big Ten power structure: Michigan and Nebraska were in an elite tier. Northwestern was a cut below.
That upper-tier, whether real or imagined, is now widely considered a two-man party: Michigan and Ohio State. Winning 10 games improved Northwestern’s national perception, and the line makers offered more evidence to this effect, but according to pretty much every media member besides Chris Dufresne of the LA Times – which, by the way: Wildcats fans, you’re going to like this guy! – Northwestern is not considered on the same plane as Michigan or Ohio State.
But it is favored in most of its games this year, which means the potential for upsets, more so than last year, is profuse. Pushing aside Las Vegas’s official lines for a moment – those numbers are devised just as much (if not more so) to foster equal betting on both sides of the line as they are to accurately reflect the competitive quality of both teams – let’s look at the games Northwestern is, in a general sense, “expected” to win: at Cal, Syracuse, Western Michigan, Maine, Minnesota, at Iowa, Michigan State, at Illinois. The other games (Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, Michigan) are either toss-ups, or games Northwestern is expected to lose. You may disagree with that makeshift delegation of opponents; it is merely my opinion.
Of the games in the first category, those I believe Northwestern should win, the Iowa game feels like the most dangerous. The Wildcats have had success against Iowa in the past, but I think (and part of this has to do with the way the program is ridiculed for saddling itself with coach Kirk Ferentz’s massive buyout clause) Iowa is being vastly underrated this season, and if Northwestern is going to lose a game unexpectedly in 2013, that one – on the road, in front of a vengeful Hawkeyes crowd at a vibrant Kinnick Stadium – seems the most likely.
The Cal game could be treacherous, and Minnesota has steadily improved under Jerry Kill, but neither activates my inner-upset intuition quite like the Iowa game. It’s just a hunch, but Northwestern could lose that game, and if it does, the defeat would most certainly qualify as an upset.