At this week's SEC meetings, Alabama coach Nick Saban said that he thinks power five conference teams should only play fellow power five teams in non-conference season. Since anything Nick Saban says is news, this blew up on Twitter.
But all of the schedule talk got me thinking: How could Northwestern's non-conference schedule be improved, and who do I want to see them play?
I even put together a hypothetical "Power Five Challenge" over at SB Nation. Because the Wildcats finished 10th in the Big Ten last year (when you include Maryland), they would have ended up playing Ole Miss, Texas Tech Miami and Oregon State. Admittedly, none of those teams are as exciting as the opponents on some of NU's upcoming schedule, but had the Wildcats finished fourth, they would have played Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and Kansas State in my model (side note: Alabama to Evanston needs to be a thing).
Obviously, that idea is completely impractical and just for fun, but it would still be interesting to see which new teams NU could incorporate into its future schedules.
Right now, the Wildcats' scheduling plan is pretty brilliant. They find "like-minded" power conference teams that are extremely beatable, then can brag about playing a tough schedule that isn't as tough as it sounds. 2012 and 2013 are perfect examples. The 2012 schedule had Syracuse, Boston College and Vanderbilt, while the 2013 schedule had California and Syracuse, and it would have had Vanderbilt had the Commodores not backed out.
That's really the perfect schedule from a competitiveness perspective — play teams you should probably beat but also aren't Nevada State Tech A&M. But is it a good strategy for the fans? That's up for debate, since NU-Syracuse doesn't move the needle much more than NU-Maine.
However, the strategy is beginning to change. Notre Dame and Stanford both come onto the schedule in the foreseeable future — Notre Dame in 2014 and 2018, and Stanford in 2015, 2016 and 2019-2022. Those are the kinds of games that might result in more losses, but will generate a lot more interest among fans.
It's a tough trade-off — improve chances of winning or play better teams — but it's clear that Northwestern's philosophy is moving from the former to the latter (though, to be fair, schedules are put together so far in advance that it's tough to tell who will be good and who won't).
With nine-game Big Ten schedules starting in 2016, it's going to be tough for NU to schedule more top-flight games each year, and at best we'll likely see teams like Duke on the schedule the same years as teams with more national cachet like Stanford and Notre Dame. Still, who would you like to see NU schedule?
As a writer, it's always more fun to cover a game against a "name" opponent than a game against Syracuse or Boston College, and I'd imagine it's the same for fans. Could UCLA be a "like-minded opponent" because of its academic prowess? NU has seen the Bruins a bit in recruiting and recruits California hard. What about fellow private school Miami?
It's wishful thinking for NU to ever get a home-and-home with a top-flight SEC school, but a top public academic public school or another private school could fit the bill.
Let us know who you'd like to see, or if you'd like to see NU get as many wins in non-conference season even if it leads to snoozers. If we get some intriguing responses, I'll do another post to see the fan perspective.