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Examining Northwestern's 2016 schedule shake-up

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What will happen to the Stanford game?

David Banks

Update:

This brings up a lot more questions. The first is the fate of the 2019-2022 four game series that had previously been announced with Stanford. Do they now play from 2019-2023? Or has the nine game conference schedule forced Northwestern to reevaluate their strategy for next decade?

The other and more immediate question is what happens with that third non-conference game for 2016. Northwestern has some interesting options. I'm sure they would love to fit in another home game since they play five on the road during conference play. That would mean more revenue and the potential to move Wisconsin or Illinois to Wrigley Field. If they do opt for another home game, do they schedule a weaker, non-Power 5 opponent as a one-off? Or do they try and fit in another home and home with a Power 5 school? The problem with another home and home series while keeping it in Evanston in 2016 is that they have to go on the road at a future date. Fitting in that road trip in the future could be tough given that they have five road conference games in even numbered years through 2019.

They may decide to check in with Notre Dame to see if they can move up their 2018 game in Evanston to 2016. Notre Dame currently has Nevada scheduled for September 10 in a one-off deal. Depending on the language in that contract, Notre Dame could potentially back out or move that game, opening them up for a trip to Northwestern. It wouldn't be a great option for Notre Dame since they'd be giving up a home date in exchange for freeing up a spot in 2018, so this seems unlikely. If this happens, I'm guessing it would be because it allows Notre Dame to schedule a home and home series that they otherwise would not have been able to fit in.

There is another possibility, one that, in my opinion, didn't make much sense for Northwestern prior to this. The administration could pursue a potential neutral site game. I don't know the opponent or venue that they'd consider to be worth-while and attractive enough to sell an adequate number of tickets, but given that students aren't around in early September and neutral site games can generate quite a bit of money for all parties involved, it might be worth exploring.

Wednesday afternoon brought some unexpected but potentially positive scheduling news for the 2016 season:

Prior to the announcement, Northwestern's 2016 looked like this, according to Hail To Purple:

September 3  -  Western Michigan
September 10  -  Illinois State
September 17  -  Duke
September 24  -  @ Stanford (now Nebraska)
October 1  -  @ Iowa
October 8  -  Nebraska (now an open week)
October 15  -  @ Michigan State
October 22  -  Indiana
October 29  -  @ Ohio State
November 5  -  Wisconsin
November 12  -  @ Purdue
November 19  -  @ Minnesota
November 26  -  Illinois

The Illinois State game seemed like it would be cancelled. For one, the Big Ten is phasing out the scheduling of FCS teams. More importantly, though, is that 2016 is the Big Ten's first season with a nine game conference schedule. Teams will only have three non-conference games. The 2016 season, unlike 2013 and 2014, will also only feature one off week for every team, so prior to this announcement, September 10 was likely it. However, this means NU would need to add another team to the schedule if it loses both Stanford and Illinois State.

With this move, Northwestern now has a friendlier off week on October 8, though that could potentially be filled by another non-conference game.

We currently don't know why this move was made. Since the Iowa at Rutgers game for late October was also moved to September 24, my hunch is that this is TV-related. The Big Ten has had some awful September slates in recent years, including this season, and they may be trying to avoid that by moving up a couple of conference games. October 8 previously had seven conference games with conference play beginning the week prior. This gives the Big Ten and ESPN the ability to air two conference games in September, a month in which none had been scheduled, and push two unattractive non-conference games to the BTN overflow channels.

It will also be interesting to see what happens with homecoming in 2016. An early October game against Nebraska appeared to be the most likely option. Now, Northwestern must decide between a late September game against Nebraska and a late October game against Indiana. Weather considerations and a desire to fill the stands with more purple for the Nebraska game may give that the edge.

Update #2

Northwestern just released both the 2015 and 2016 schedules on their website and, unless they decide to make changes, we will see the Illinois State game stay on the schedule. That leaves Northwestern with seven home games, albeit with a rather unattractive home schedule. I'd rather see Illinois State than a bad MAC team, though. The difference in attendance is negligible and Northwestern saves a fair amount of money.

Northwestern could decide to move one of their two November games, either Wisconsin or Illinois, to Wrigley Field. They may want to avoid that, though, since Wisconsin just drew 42k in Evanston and it's not a good idea to give Illinois some attention. Students and other fans will always be away since that falls on Thanksgiving weekend. In addition, it is probably a good idea to put some space between the Wrigley games to keep fan costs down and keep them somewhat special.