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Assessing Northwestern’s non-conference schedule: The Wildcats need to start strong

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A brutal October stretch follows what is a somewhat manageable non-conference slate.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Fitzgerald’s talked about it plenty of times.

Northwestern has a distinct advantage over most other teams when it comes to the first three weeks of the football season: Northwestern’s quarter system. While most players at other schools spend several week trying to figure out classes, balancing schoolwork with practice and trying to set some sort of schedule before Week 1, Northwestern’s student-athletes are, for all intents and purposes, eating, sleeping and breathing football.

Most of Fitzgerald’s players finish summer courses in late July and don’t take another class until late September thanks to the quarter system. This year, the first day of class is Sept. 20, though freshmen — true freshman football players included — take part in an orientation program that begins Sept. 12.

Still, about 75 percent of the players — and about 90 percent of the players that will be eligible to play this year — won’t have any classes to go to or schoolwork to do until the non-conference schedule is over this season.

Maybe that’s part of the reason Pat Fitzgerald has won nine of his 10 season openers as a head coach, including last year’s shocking upset over Stanford. Conversely, maybe that’s the reason for Fitzgerald’s struggles in October, when not only does the competition (usually) ramp up a notch in Big Ten play, but players get into the swing of things with classes. For the first three weeks of the season, players can look at all the film they want — obviously practice hours limitations are still in effect, but players can practice and review as much film as they want on their own time. During the school year, players spend their non-practice time in class or doing schoolwork. Even if it’s not all football all the time during those first three weeks — and it surely isn’t — this period doesn’t carry nearly the stress nor the demanding schedule that the rest of the season does. Players can practice and relax, rather than practice and then do schoolwork.

Northwestern typically gets three games in before the academic year begins, with the fourth game coming after what is usually a more laid back first week of classes. Here is how Northwestern has faired in its first four games of every season under Fitzgerald as well as the team’s overall record for the year.

Year Record after four weeks Overall record Bowl?
2006 2-2 4-8 NO
2007* 2-2 6-6 NO
2008 4-0 9-4 YES
2009* 2-2 8-5 YES
2010 4-0 7-6 YES
2011 2-2 6-7 YES
2012 4-0 10-3 YES
2013 4-0 5-7 NO
2014* 2-2 5-7 NO
2015 4-0 10-3 YES

*season did not start out with with four straight non-conference games

A successful non-conference slate sets the stage for a solid season overall. Now of course this is generally a good example of correlation and not causation: better teams will win more games, regardless of whether they’re playing during the academic year or not. Still, the correlation is somewhat strong: only once did under Fitzgerald has a Northwestern team failed to make a bowl game after completing the first four weeks with a winning record. That 2013 team was an extreme example of what Northwestern fans have, in general, grown accustomed to under Fitzgerald: strong performances in September followed by struggles in October.

Last year’s 4-0 opening month springboarded what was a surprisingly successful season. Wins over Stanford and Duke showed the college football world that the defense was legitimate. In Week 4, a comeback win to thwart Ball State’s upset bid featured Clayton Thorson playing the best half of his young college career, a second half effort he repeated in Lincoln about a month later to get Northwestern’s season back on track.

This year’s non-conference schedule — while only three games — may be even more important.

First, if this Northwestern team wants to approach the level of success last year’s team had, a 3-0 start is crucial. The opener against up-and-comer Western Michigan cannot be taken lightly. The Broncos run a spread attack that can put up numbers, and the defense is extremely aggressive, especially in the secondary. Still, if Northwestern loses this one — it would Fitzgerald’s second opening-weekend loss in three years — it would certainly be a concern. Illinois State — Northwestern’s last-ever FCS opponent — should be relatively straight-forward. David Cutcliffe’s Duke bunch, however, will rarely beat itself, and it could be another dogfight. 3-0 is much, much more likely than 4-0 was last year, but it’s far from a certainty.

But perhaps more importantly, Northwestern needs to excel in the non-conference schedule because the five-game stretch that follows is downright scary. Nebraska comes to Evanston on Sept. 24. The following weekend, the Wildcats head to Iowa. Kinnick has not been particularly nice to Northwestern, with the Hawkeyes winning three straight at home in the series, and the defending Big Ten West champs aren’t going to be any easier in 2016. Following a bye, Northwestern heads to Michigan State, returns home to host Indiana and then heads back on the road to Ohio State to complete an absurdly difficult month. Oh, and while we're at it, here's a friendly reminder that Wisconsin comes to town to kick off November.

If Northwestern can manage the five-game slalom that spans from Sept. 24 to Oct. 29 with a plus-.500 record, most Wildcat fans would be ecstatic.

But a successful 2016 starts in Week 1, and in the grand scheme of things, it starts with an undefeated non-conference slate. Fitzgerald has proven that with enough skill on his team and a little bit of luck, he can guide his teams to undefeated opening months. He’s done it five times in 10 seasons in Evanston. Whether he can do it again this year will go a long way in determining if the program continues to advance forward by making another major bowl appearance or enters a brutal October stretch with significant ground to make up just to secure a bowl berth.