If you've ever lived in the midwest, or even just set foot in the heartland as the leaves begin to change color, you know the feeling. You know the feeling of the gentle-yet-uncomfortable heat of the sun abiding; of a fulfilling, energizing chill replacing it. You know the feeling of the wind gusts that cause trees to sway; that occasionally cause you to do so with them.
What is that feeling? It's October. And what is October? It's Big Ten football.
Big Ten football. It is here. It is here in 2015, at long last, in all its glory. Flags will ripple Saturday. Clouds will descend. Shiver-inducing waves will roll in off Lake Michigan. Temperatures in the 50s. Sweatshirts, perhaps even handwarmers in the stands. Muffled tension bundled up in purple-clad bodies.
Big Ten Football. On Saturday, it will be here.
Saturday also marks the commencement of Northwestern's run at a championship. Put aside the empty Pat Fitzgerald line about competing for championships; put aside his players' echoes of it; Northwestern truly is a championship contender. Nevermind that it's merely the Big Ten West. Northwestern is a championship contender. And when you pair that statement with the feeling of the wind flying under your nose, of that early morning sun incapable of making you break into a sweat, a chill should run through you. Visions of Indianapolis, of Ohio State, maybe Michigan State, should overwhelm you. Northwestern is about to embark on an adventure. We're just along for the ride. And we have no idea what the next two months have in store. And what's more? We wouldn't have it any other way.
Let's meet the protagonists...
The Badgers are, once again, the most talented team in the West. They were before the season. They still are. After a season opening loss to Alabama, they've rolled through three games against inferior opponents. And while this might not be the same Wisconsin team that ended up rolling through the West, especially in November, a year ago, it's at worst a slightly weakened version. The Badgers are West division favorites.
Is Northwestern the second best team in the division right now? Probably. The offense is still horrid at times, but the defense is good enough to keep the Wildcats in any Big Ten game.
Nebraska was the second most popular pick to win the West prior to the season. Losses to BYU and Miami and an underwhelming performance against Southern Miss have changed the outlook. First year coach Mike Riley has a solid roster, but it's not necessarily one that's been easy to get the best out of. Riley's ability to do that over the next two months will determine Nebraska's fate.
The Hawkeyes are undefeated. The last time that was the case heading into Big Ten play? 2009, when Iowa reached November 9-0 and won a BCS bowl. These Hawkeyes aren't that good — right? — but they've shoved their way into this argument and, for reasons soon to be discussed, are a dark horse contender.
Minnesota is bad. We think. But if the Gophers were to beat Northwestern this weekend in Evanston, they'd be right in the thick of the race in the West. For now, they're lurking on the periphery of it.
The toughest game on paper is at Nebraska, but that's the second game of conference play, meaning the Cornhuskers will still be in the relatively early stages of their evolution. Other than that... there doesn't appear to be much trouble. The Badgers get Northwestern and Iowa at home, and their crossover games are Rutgers and Maryland. This is the West's easiest conference schedule.
At Wisconsin, at Northwestern, and at Nebraska. And then... bleh. Yes, the Hawkeyes will likely be underdogs in those three games, which makes the schedule seem anything but straightforward. But if they truly are better than many thought preseason, there could be five comfortable wins on the Big Ten slate. All it would take is an upset or two...
The Cornhuskers get the other top three contenders, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern, at home. But their fourth Big Ten home game? It's Michigan State, in one of their crossovers. Regardless of home/road, that alone makes this a tad more difficult than the two above it.
Suddenly, Michigan looks good, and thus Northwestern's schedule looks a bit more perilous. The opening four game stretch — Minnesota, at Michigan, Iowa, at Nebraska — could see an at-this-point-undefeated Northwestern team as a net underdog. The Soldier Field game helps from a home/road perspective, but with Penn State looking competent, the crossovers are tough. Even if the Wildcats are for real, they'll likely only be favored in five of the eight games.
Crossovers: at Ohio State, home to Michigan. Ouch.
The key games
We'll learn a lot right off the bat. Not only does NU host Minnesota, but Iowa travels to Wisconsin as well. If you're a Northwestern fan, you're probably rooting for Iowa... probably. Nebraska is also at Illinois, perhaps a sneakily tough spot. A loss would all but rule out the Cornhuskers.
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Northwestern's trip to Michigan is by no means a must-win. In fact, the more important game will be Wisconsin at Nebraska. If the Badgers beat Iowa the week before, a second conference win over a fellow West contender would put them firmly in the driver's seat.
Now this might be a must-win. Northwestern welcomes Iowa to Evanston for homecoming, and if both teams enter at 1-1, a loss at home would be a crushing blow. Elsewhere, Wisconsin will get another win (home vs. Purdue), and Nebraska's meeting with Minnesota in Minneapolis could knock one team out of the race for good.
Northwestern must come away from its first four games at 2-2. Depending on previous results, that could mean a win in Lincoln will be imperative. If the Wildcats come in 2-1 though, they'll take what they can get, and hope for an Illinois upset of Wisconsin in Champaign.
Minnesota hosts Michigan. If the Gophers win a game early on that they weren't supposed to, this becomes not only intriguing, but also a huge opportunity for Jerry Kill's team in primetime under the lights.
At 2-2, Northwestern's home game with Penn State would be a must-win. At 3-1, it wouldn't necessarily be. But it's a game NU should win regardless. Elsewhere, Nebraska will probably lose at home to Michigan State. If Iowa is any good, a trip to Indiana could be a game to watch. And Illinois plays Purdue, so there's that...
Depending on earlier results, Minnesota-Iowa could be one of those 'loser is out, winner stays alive for at least one more week' games.
Northwestern heads to Madison. Remember, the Wildcats don't need to be level with or ahead of the Badgers. The goal should be to enter this game within one game of Wisconsin. That's all it takes, because a win at Camp Randall would then put the Wildcats even with Wisconsin, and give them the head-to-head tiebreaker. If there's any game that could be a psuedo-Big Ten West championship, it's this one.
Crucially, on the last weekend of the regular season, Northwestern could get some help if it needs it. The other four contenders go head-to-head, as Wisconsin visits Minnesota and Nebraska hosts Iowa. So if Northwestern goes in requiring a win over Illinois and a loss from somebody else, it would actually be plausible.
Can Northwestern do it? Yes. But can and will are two different propositions. Here's how I see things playing out:
1. Wisconsin | 7-1
T-2. Northwestern | 5-3
T-2. Iowa | 5-3
T-2. Nebraska | 5-3
T-5. Minnesota | 2-6
T-5. Illinois | 2-6
7. Purdue | 1-7
Now it's your turn. Who will win the West? If not Northwestern, where will the Wildcats finish?