Last month, Chicago Sun Times Northwestern beat writer Seth Gruen spoke to Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier about the possibility of scheduling games against Northwestern.
“Just knowing the caliber of coaching that’s over at Northwestern—obviously I know the coaches very well—I think it’s a great idea. I think that we should do it,” Frazier said. “I think we should do it quick, fast, in a hurry, and definitely something I will pursue,” Frazier said at the time.
The two schools had engaged in what Gruen characterized as “really, really preliminary” discussion, but it now appears the talks were farther along than Frazier let on. That, or Frazier and Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips had few, if any, hiccups during negotiations for a non-conference matchup, to be played Sept. 6, 2014 at Ryan Field. This will mark the first time Northwestern and Northern Illinois have met since September 2005, a wild 38-37 Wildcats victory. Phillips was quoted in the athletic department release announcing the game.
“This is a truly exciting time for Chicago’s Big Ten Team as we continue to upgrade our nonconference football schedule,” said Phillips. “Both Pat Fitzgerald and I have said repeatedly that Northwestern is committed to challenging itself in nonconference play, in addition to the always rigorous Big Ten slate. We’re excited to add the two-time defending MAC champions and 2013 Orange Bowl participants, and an in-state program that I have the deepest respect and admiration for, to a list of future opponents that already includes teams such as California, Notre Dame and Stanford. There has never been a better time to be a Wildcats football fan.”
After adding Northern Illinois, and thereby filling the second spot vacated by Vanderbilt's backing out of 2013 and '14 games with the Wildcats, Northwestern’s 2014 non-conference schedule now features Cal, Western Illinois, Notre Dame and the Huskies. That’s a tough non-conference slate – much tougher than the soft four-game schedule the Wildcats played this season.
Not everybody will receive this news graciously. When playing against good small-conference schools like Northern Illinois, the cost-benefit analysis is skewed in favor of the little guy: if Northwestern beats NIU, well, who cares? They should have beaten them!; if it loses…you lost to Northern Illinois?! A MAC team?! Scheduling cupcake non-conference games, like Western Illinois, allows a team to pile up wins with little concern for the embarrassment of a loss to a mid-major, or FCS, opponent. InsideNU's own Kevin Trahan wrote about this in August. On the other hand, signing up for games against better competition -- BCS conference or otherwise -- is exactly the type of move the College Football Playoff selection committee (which is expected to heavily consider schedule strength in its selection process), hopes to induce. By adding NIU, Northwestern beefed up its 2014 non-conference slate, and while losing to a good MAC team (though after electric quarterback Jordan Lynch graduates this offseason, the Huskies shouldn't be quite as good) hurts a team's national perception more than bashing a bad one helps it, perhaps the NIU date could lead to a more desirable postseason destination for the Wildcats (There's also the possibility of Northwestern and Northern Illinois forming something like a geographic-based rivalry, which would be kind of cool).
We’ll assess the implications of a win or loss when the game is actually played. The important takeaway today is purely factual: Northwestern scheduled a non-conference game for next season against the two-time defending MAC champion. That’s interesting.