Northwestern and Stanford are set to square off Saturday on the opening weekend of the 2015 college football season, and, naturally, it's a huge game for both teams. Any College Football Playoff hopes for Stanford would be dashed with a loss, and Northwestern could make a huge splash with a win. But the game isn't just important for this season. It's important off the field as well, on a larger scale.
As academically comparable schools, Northwestern and Stanford often find themselves battling for the same high school prospects. Because of academic restrictions and university values, similar players often show up on the list of targets for both schools. For a few reasons, it's actually not as many as you might think. The two programs often recruit different geographical areas, and Stanford has been recruiting at a significantly higher level than Northwestern in recent years.
Previewing Saturday's game
Previewing Saturday's game
Therein lies the point though. If Northwestern is to elevate itself as a program, it must begin challenging Stanford for recruits. The two will always be recruiting the same type of player. The path forward for Northwestern involves recruiting the same caliber of player — and thus the same players.
Pat Fitzgerald said as much back at Big Ten Media Days in July: "We've tried to go out and play academic comparables — Vanderbilt, Boston College, Notre Dame, Stanford... Duke, Rice, Cal," he said. "So that's been our blueprint. If we're going to win on the recruiting trail, we've got to win on the field."
Northwestern's record in those games Fitzgerald mentioned has been pretty good. Since 2010, it's been really good. Against Vanderbilt, Boston College, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Rice and Cal, the Wildcats were 10-1 between 2010 and 2014.
But outside of Notre Dame, none of those programs compare to Stanford. Scheduling Stanford is a sizable step up for Northwestern. Fitzgerald has admitted that it's a challenge. But he prefers to look at it as an opportunity.
If Northwestern can win, it would be the first step in reversing, or at least halting a clear trend on the recruiting trail: Northwestern hasn't been able to compete with Stanford.
Since 2010, and including the 2016 class, according to 247Sports, 30 players that held offers from both Northwestern and Stanford chose one of the two schools. Of those 30, seven picked Northwestern, while 23 picked Stanford. (The numbers do not include Kain Colter, who had committed to Stanford in 2010 before having his scholarship offer pulled by Jim Harbaugh due to a high school injury. He would later commit to Northwestern)
This has been even more pronounced in recent years. Since 2013, 15 players have picked Stanford over NU, while only two (Garrett Dickerson and Auston Anderson in 2014) have chosen the Wildcats over Stanford.
Here's a complete chart of players who held offers from both schools:
Players with offers from Stanford and Northwestern
|Year||Picked Stanford||Picked Northwestern|
|2011||Ra'Chard Pippens||Deonte Gibson|
|Kevin Reihner||Max Chapman|
|Remound Wright||Drew Smith|
|2012||Connor Crane||Ifeadi Odenigbo|
|2014||Reilly Gibbons||Auston Anderson|
|Terrence Alexander||Garrett Dickerson|
|Frank Buncom IV|
If Northwestern is to go where it wants to go as a program, it will have to begin recruiting at a Stanford level. And if it is to begin recruiting at a Stanford level, it will have to begin beating teams like Stanford on the field. The Wildcats get their shot on Saturday.