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Take two: Is Northwestern’s game against Michigan State a must-win for the Wildcats?

Can the Wildcats still reach bowl eligibility if they lose on Saturday?

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Is Northwestern’s trip to Michigan State a must-win for the 2016 season? Tristan Jung and Will Ragatz give their opinions.

Tristan Jung: For Northwestern to salvage any kind of tangible success from this season, it has to win this game at Michigan State this weekend. After the big win against Iowa two weeks ago, Northwestern now has to win four of its next seven games to become bowl-eligible at 6-6. If that occurs, it won’t be a pretty bowl, and it won’t be against a high-quality opponent, but given that Northwestern lost three of its first four encounters, it’s at least something for Pat Fitzgerald to celebrate.

But forget about bowl implications for a moment. Northwestern is 2-5 against Michigan State in the Mark Dantonio era, and this is certainly one of the weakest Michigan State teams that Northwestern has faced in the last decade. At the beginning of the year, a trip to a team that had lost five times between 2013-2015 was part of Northwestern’s daunting October schedule. Now Michigan State looks very vulnerable, and it would be a huge confidence boost for Northwestern as a program to notch another road victory against what is considered a conference blue blood.

After a fairly miserable start to the season, back-to-back victories could be a season-saving occasion for the Wildcats. The team has failed to show any kind of consistency in 2016. While the game is a must-win for postseason purposes, it’s also a must-win for the team and the coaching staff in terms of reliability and preparation. If Northwestern’s wild inconsistency continues through 2016, the rest of Clayton Thorson’s tenure at Northwestern could get very dicey. This game will be huge for Northwestern to consolidate the improvements the team showed versus the Hawkeyes.

Will Ragatz: After starting as poorly as Northwestern did, a bowl appearance has to be considered the goal for the remainder of 2016. Like you said, that most likely means going 4-3 in the final seven games of the season. (Due to their extremely high APR score, the Wildcats would actually have a great shot at making a bowl at 5-7 if the NCAA once again doesn’t have enough six-win teams, but let’s assume that won’t be the case...also that would be lame). This game against Michigan State is not a must-win because there is a clear path for Northwestern to pick up four more wins without beating the Spartans. At this point, there are three teams left on the schedule that Pat Fitzgerald’s crew should definitely beat. Purdue and Illinois are bad football teams, and Minnesota’s dumpster fire of an offense just put up 7 points on an Iowa defense that gave up 38 to Northwestern. Then you have two home games against talented but beatable opponents to pick up the necessary fourth win: Oct. 22 vs Indiana (more likely) and Nov. 5 vs. Wisconsin (less likely).

That leaves just two road games, at Ohio State and this one in East Lansing. The Wildcats don’t stand a chance against the Buckeyes, and I actually think this Saturday’s game is going to be tougher than many expect. Sure, Michigan State is vulnerable, but the Spartans still have plenty of talent and more importantly, Mark Dantonio. I would be very surprised to see a coach as good as Dantonio lose a fourth straight game and a third consecutive on his home field, especially on Homecoming. You have to imagine the Spartans will come out energized, desperate and with a good gameplan. I hear your point about wanting Northwestern to achieve some consistency, but unless the Wildcats get absolutely blown out, there’s nothing shameful or season-destroying about losing this game.

Tristan Jung: I wouldn’t go as far as arguing it’s “shameful” to lose this game, barring a Rutgers-style collapse. However, those two home games against Indiana and Wisconsin that you mentioned will be very tough tests for Northwestern. Indiana has looked very solid this year and has made massive strides on defense thus far (rising 70+ spots in defensive S&P+). I think Wisconsin is slightly overrated in the polls, but they are still a substantially better football team. Hoping that Northwestern will win one of those two football games at Ryan Field is a tall order. The road game against Minnesota is no gimme either.

By S&P+, Michigan State is the worst Big Ten team that Northwestern will play until it goes to Purdue on November 12. How much weight you put in those numbers is up to you, but Michigan State has not shown itself to be anything close to a juggernaut. Michigan State doesn’t have a quarterback (well, technically it has three, which means it has none). The Spartans could barely do anything against BYU, a defense that gave up 53 points to Toledo in Provo a week before. In my opinion, if there is a game and it is winnable, Northwestern has to win that game. That’s what happens when you lose at home to an FCS team. This syllogism is, admittedly, incredibly obvious, but it holds true.

Will Ragatz: I hear what you’re saying. What this question really comes down to, though, is how one determines what makes a must-win game. For Northwestern to hold onto its dreams of getting back into the Big Ten West race, it has to win this game. But I just don’t think that’s a possibility, due to the fact that Nebraska and Wisconsin, the current division leaders, are significantly better teams. As I mentioned earlier, I think the Wildcats’ realistic way to salvage this season is by getting back to .500 and making (and ideally winning) a bowl. And in my opinion, this isn’t a must-win game to do that.

All of those S&P+ numbers are nice, but remember, Tristan: stats are for losers. All joking aside, even if you consider Michigan State worse than Indiana, the point is that it’s pretty close. If Northwestern loses on Saturday, it’ll still have a decent chance to take down the Hoosiers on homecoming and set itself up nicely for bowl contention with a much easier November.