On paper, Northwestern football's first three games of 2014 seem relatively normal. The 'Cats open against the Cal Bears in the second installment of a home-and-home (NU took last year's contest in Berkely, 44-30). Next up is Northern Illinois, a school located 75-miles west of Evanston that rode then-Heisman candidate QB Jordan Lynch, who is now trying to catch on with the Chicago Bears as a running back, to a 12-2 season in 2013. Before Northwestern travels to Happy Valley to open up play against James Franklin's Penn St. team, they'll host FCS opponent Western Illinois.
There's one game against a big-five team, a dangerous contest against a mid-major that's been successful, and a glorified dress rehearsal for B1G play against an FCS team. That's essentially a normal non-conference schedule for a school of Northwestern's caliber to put together- sure, there's no game that grabs your attention like the Nov. 15 contest against Notre Dame, but if everything goes to plan, the 'Cats should enter B1G play 3-0 with two semi-quality wins.
But there's one glaring issue with Northwestern's football schedule. It's not a new issue, and unfortunately it's unlikely to change.
The Western Illinois game is on September 20. Northwestern operates on the quarter system, and the first day of fall classes begins on Tuesday, September 23. While freshman and some other students will be in Evanston before that date, this scheduling conflict means that there will be very, very few students at Northwestern's first two home games, and a freshman-heavy student section for the last one.
Come September, you'll be seeing plenty of this:
And not much of this:
This whole notion of student-less home games has bothered me since I learned of its existence. But as I examine the issue more closely, I've accepted that there's not much we can do about it. There are two possible solutions to the problem, but both are unlikely to ever happen.
Option one: Ditch The Quarter System
Northwestern is a lot of things: a top-notch university, a welcoming community, and way too cold. But one thing it is not is a football-crazed powerhouse. Ohio State we are not; academics come first and foremost at NU, and rightfully so- you don't get to be the 12th best college in the country by accident.
Clearly, Northwestern's administration prefers the quarter system from a purely academic standpoint, and that's really the only standpoint that matters at Northwestern. NU brass really toot the quarter system's horn. They tell you that you get to take more classes, enjoy a longer summer, and not have to worry about taking finals after winter break.
College football traditionally starts in late August because the vast majority of American colleges operate on the semester system whose school year starts in late August. It works for most, but Northwestern's long-standing relationship with the quarter system is not going to change so students can attend two or three football games. The school just doesn't care about football enough, quite frankly — whether you agree that's the right philosophy or not.
Option two: Open up on the road
This actually has been the norm for NU! 2014-2015 marks the first season in 6 years the the Wildcats open up at home. It's not unreasonable to think that Northwestern's athletic department used to purposefully schedule away openers due to a lack of students on campus.
And it's apparent that Pat Fitzgerald prefers the comforts of Evanston when preparing his team for the B1G season. From our notes from media day:
He said an advantage of their schedule this year is starting the season at home for the first month. "We're going to probably know a lot more about our team, going into the bye week, than most of our brothers here in the Big Ten, from a standpoint of who we're playing."
Though this issue is a relatively rare one, Northwestern is not alone. Stanford also uses the quarter system and faces a similar issue. UCLA also struggles to fill the Rose Bowl with students for their first few games.
But those programs don't struggle with attendance the same way Northwestern does. On average, 50,743 fans attended Stanford football games last year and the stadium's capacity is only listed at 50,424 (they sold out every game). Despite not filling the massive Rose Bowl, UCLA still averaged 70,285 at home games last year. Northwestern could only muster 39,305 on Saturdays at Ryan Field. Some of that clearly has to do with the lack of success last year, but the NU-Syracuse game still wasn't a big draw, despite the Wildcats playing well.
Every fan counts to Northwestern football. Students are the most loyal of fans and show up to games ready, rowdy and usually vaguely intoxicated no matter if the team is 1-7 or 7-1. So why not reward the fans and return to opening up the year on the road?