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Northwestern's 2015 football schedule: Easier or tougher than 2014?

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It's going to depend on the improvement of a few opponents.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When trying predict year-to-year performance in college football, one of the most talked about factors is a team's schedule. Of course, paramount will always be the team's actual on-field improvement, but in a 12-game season, and with the wide range of opposition quality throughout college football, a schedule really can make a big difference.

And unlike in college basketball, where an easy schedule isn't necessarily better -- the NCAA Tournament committee heavily factors in strength of schedule -- it certainly is in college football. Unless a team is in contention for the College Football Playoff, there are no ramifications for a schedule full of cupcakes and directional schools.

With that being said, there are a couple of admissions to make before getting into NU's 2015 slate. First of all, it's impossible to predict just how good the teams on the Wildcats' schedule will be. For all we know, Purdue could shock the world and go 8-4; by the same token, Wisconsin could struggle under Paul Chryst and slip to 5-7. You just never know.

Secondly, we also have no idea how good NU will be, and thus we have no idea about the lens through which we'll view NU's opponents. Let's take the Duke game as an example. If the Wildcats are what we believe they're going to be -- a below average Power Five team -- we're looking at whether this non-conference game, the second toughest of the four, is one in which NU is a significant underdog, or whether it's more of a toss-up. But if Northwestern turns out to be better than we think, then analysis of the Duke game turns into, 'Is this a trap game? Or should NU roll?'

Anyway, on to the schedules. First, let's look at 2014, along with the end-of-year S&P+ rank of NU's opponents. S&P+ numbers courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders:

(Northwestern's S&P+ rank was 85)

2014 Schedule

Date Opponent Opponent S&P+ Rk
30-Aug California 61
6-Sep Northern Illinois 80
20-Sep Western Illinois NR
27-Sep at Penn State 46
4-Oct Wisconsin 25
11-Oct at Minnesota 36
18-Oct Nebraska 31
1-Nov at Iowa 70
8-Nov Michigan 45
15-Nov at Notre Dame 27
22-Nov at Purdue 79
29-Nov Illinois 65

And a quick look at some numbers that represent the overall strength of the schedule.

(For simplicity's sake, FCS teams are treated as the 128th-ranked team)

Average opponent S&P+ rank Top-40 opponents Bottom-40/FCS opponents Opponents above NU Opponents below NU
57.75 4 1 11 1

Now a look at the 2015 schedule, along with each opponent's projected S&P+ rank, again courtesy of Connelly:

(Northwestern's projected S&P+ rank is 62)

2015 Schedule

Date Opponent Projected opponent S&P+ Rank
5-Sep Stanford 11
12-Sep Eastern Illinois NR
19-Sep at Duke 54
26-Sep Ball State 100
3-Oct Minnesota 42
10-Oct at Michigan 35
17-Oct Iowa 57
24-Oct at Nebraska 30
7-Nov Penn State 37
14-Nov Purdue 74
21-Nov at Wisconsin 25
28-Nov vs. Illinois 63

And a look at the same overall strength numbers:

(Similarly to above, FCS teams are treated as the 128th-ranked team)

Average opponent S&P+ rank Top-40 opponents Bottom-40/FCS opponents Opponents above NU Opponents below NU
54.67 5 2 8 4
Reactions/analysis/notes:

- There's one big way in which the 2015 schedule is easier: In 2014, there was only one push-over, Western Illinois. The second worst team on the schedule, Northern Illinois, turned out to be a loss. But in 2015, essentially, Northern Illinois is replaced by Ball State, which should be a second relatively simple non-conference win.

- The non-conference schedule is composed differently in 2015, but overall, it's strength is similar to 2014.

- The best team on Northwestern's schedule is the first team, which is not necessarily the best thing for a team with an inexperienced quarterback. However, given what we expect NU to be, it would be expected to lose to the 11th-best team in the country anyway, no matter when the game is, so this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

- In 2014, NU played two of its top-three Big Ten opponents at home. In 2015, it gets all of its projected top-three Big Ten opponents on the road.

- Oddly, Northwestern plays exactly the same set of eight Big Ten teams in 2015 as it did in 2014. So everything is

- The single biggest factor that will determine how much tougher NU's 2015 slate is will be the improvement of Michigan and Penn State. The S&P+ rankings have them making jumps of 10 and 9 respectively. Those numbers could very will be in the 20s; they also could very will be close to 0 or even negative. If the former, then NU's 2015 slate is significantly tougher. If the latter, then there's virtually no difference.

- Overall, the schedule looks slightly tougher, but not enough to be a major impediment.