Northwestern Football will play (at least) 12 games this season, but not all games are created equal. The Wildcats travel to the Big House and Camp Randall in Big Ten play but also host non-conference opponents like Eastern Illinois and Ball State. So which game on the schedule is the most important? Ian McCafferty and Josh Rosenblat debate.
Ian: Northwestern's most important game this season is coincidentally also its first one, home against Stanford. Now I don't love saying that a team's first game is its most important, but I can make an exception due to the quality of the opponent. Non-conference games are incredibly important for the national perception of both teams and their conferences and Northwestern has a marquee matchup in week one.
If you asked Pat Fitzgerald directly he would probably tell you that all 12 games are equally as important or just not answer, but even he seems especially excited for the matchup with Stanford. In a quote from Henry Bushnell's profile of the Northwestern head coach, he made it a point to mention the season-opening contest:
One [reporter] frames a question by rattling off big-time, non-conference games that will affect the national perception of the Big Ten: "Minnesota-TCU, Michigan-Utah, Ohio State-Virginia Tech..." Finally, before the reporter can name a fourth, Fitzgerald cuts him off: "Northwestern-Stanford."
Northwestern does still have 11 games after the Wildcats play Stanford however, so Josh which game do you think is their most important?
Josh: In a similar sense, I also think Northwestern's most important game is an opener of some sorts: the first Big Ten clash of the season when Minnesota comes to Evanston. If Northwestern's non-conference schedule ends up looking like chalk (losses to Stanford and Duke and wins over Eastern Illinois and Ball State) heading into the Big Ten at 2-2 puts the season at a major crossroads. Lose the opener to Minnesota and fall below .500 having to travel the following week to play a Michigan team that no one really knows much about right now, especially because they have this new head coach who's kind of flying under the radar.
But on the flipside, beating Minnesota at home -- a very winnable game, might I add -- would give Northwestern a solid victory on which to build upon for a potential run at the West Division title.
In 2014, Northwestern went into Minnesota on a three-game winning streak that included wins at Penn State and against Wisconsin, only to lose to the Gophers 24-17. After that game, in which Northwestern played particularly poor, the Wildcats lost their next two games to Nebraska and Iowa by a combined score of 86-24 and a third to Michigan at home in what was one of the ugliest football games we've seen.
In 2013, Minnesota came to Evanston with Northwestern having the chance to right the ship after back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin. The three-point defeat at the hands of the Gophers began a string of four-consecutive one-possession losses for Northwestern.
There's something about Minnesota that has gotten to Northwestern these past two seasons. It's not the sexiest game on the schedule, one of the least sexy actually, but that does not decrease its importance.
Whereas the Stanford game could raise Northwestern's profile nationally in 2015, the early-season clash could have little bearing on where the Wildcats end up down the road.
Ian: Big Ten games are important (obviously) but I think the upside of the Stanford game is what puts it over the top. A win over Stanford would change the entire tone of the season and is something that could even be compared to the win over Notre Dame to start the 1995 season. Stanford is ranked 21st in the nation so its not exactly the same, but you get the idea.
I do agree that a loss against Minnesota is probably more damaging than a loss to Stanford, but a lot of that has to do with where it is in the schedule. The Minnesota game gains importance because its the Big Ten opener not because of the quality of the opponent. I also feel like a win over Minnesota doesn't necessarily mean a successful campaign (see 2014 Penn State game), while a win over Stanford sets up a lot of momentum for the rest of the year.
Finally, this is Northwestern's biggest non-conference game (not against an independent i.e. Notre Dame) in who knows when. Vanderbilt in 2012? Arizona State in 2005? TCU in 2004? This is a huge, can't-miss chance for a program that's been on the decline the last few years. A win over Stanford puts Northwestern football back on the map, and would set it up for a surprisingly successful campaign. Also, here's a fun fact: Northwestern has only lost the season opener three times in the last 15 years, 2002 at Air Force, 2004 at TCU, and 2014 against Cal. Last year's loss was the first time they lost at home in the opener since 1999 against Miami (Ohio). So I'm not saying they'll beat Stanford, but there's a chance.
Josh: Sure, your points are valid, but my issue lies in how winnable the season-opener against Stanford is. Our staff ranked it as the second-most-difficult game for Northwestern in 2015 (I ranked it as the least winnable and Ian ranked it as the third-least). And as a staff we ranked Minnesota as Northwestern's seventh-most-winnable game (I ranked it fifth most-winnable and Ian ranked it eighth). While I may think the Minnesota game is more winnable than most, that makes it all the more important.
This game, a home matchup with a middle-of-the-road team in a middle-of-the-road division, will teach us more about Northwestern than what will likely be a season-opening loss to Stanford. And a lot that does have to do with its location on the schedule, which should definitely play a big role in determining the importance of a game.
By week five, Northwestern should have settled in to its personality: the quarterback situation will have probably worked itself out, as will the breakdown of how many carries each running back gets, and the young players that Fitzgerald has said will play big roles will have gotten used to the college game. Thus, the game against Minnesota can be an accurate measuring stick for Northwestern's bowl prospects.
Win the game and get to 3-2, the schedule sets up decently to make a run for six, seven or maybe eight wins. Lose it and Northwestern could dig itself into a hole very, very quickly. In the grand scheme of things, the Stanford game probably won't matter much. A win obviously would be a great boost for this team, but a loss to the Cardinal wouldn't mean nearly as much as a loss to Minnesota would.