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Take Two: What is Northwestern’s most important game in 2016?

Will Ragatz and Ian McCafferty debate which regular season game carries the most significance.

Northwestern v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Northwestern faces a pretty brutal schedule in 2016. As a result, each game — especially in conference play — takes on a bigger significance. Will Ragatz and Ian McCafferty discuss which of those 12 games will be the most important for the Wildcats to win.

Will Ragatz: What makes this an interesting discussion is that there isn’t one game that clearly stands out as being Northwestern’s most important in 2016. You could make the case for any of the four games in October (@Iowa, @Michigan State, Indiana, @Ohio State), the Wisconsin home game right after that brutal stretch, or even the season opener against a strong Western Michigan team. With that said, I’m not going to go in any of those directions.

Northwestern’s most important game this season will take place at Ryan Field in prime time on September 24th, when the Wildcats greet the Nebraska Cornhuskers to open conference play. Assuming Northwestern can take care of business and start 3-0, this game is going to be huge for a few reasons. Nebraska is going to be a lot better than its 6-7 record last year showed, and will be one of Northwestern’s main competitors for the Big Ten West division title. Thus, a win here is crucial because of the tiebreaking implications the game could have down the road. If the Wildcats can win what should be an evenly matched contest, they would enter their daunting October at 4-0, which is a whole let better than at 3-1.

Ian, I’m curious to see why you disagree.

Ian McCafferty: Honestly when I was thinking about this, there were two games that came to mind: The game at Iowa and the game against Wisconsin. As flashy as the Ohio State and Michigan State games are, they’re not necessarily that important. Northwestern’s most important game has to be a divisional opponent, which you decided correctly, but you picked the wrong game. Northwestern’s most important game of 2016 will be the first of that rough October stretch when the Wildcats travel to Kinnick to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes.

I decided against the Wisconsin game because the Badgers will more than likely be decimated by their schedule at that point, which would leave Iowa as Northwestern’s biggest rival for a potential division title. The same argument could potentially be made for Nebraska, but I personally don’t think Nebraska will be great in 2016. As dangerous as this might sound, I think Northwestern wins that game easily. That would leave them at 4-0 and heading into a rematch with Iowa.

The Hawkeyes are the division favorite right now, and a win against them would go far in potentially making this a special season for Northwestern. It would also ease the worry about the tough October. The Nebraska game, under the lights, will be one of the most fun games of the season, but it’s not nearly as important as Northwestern’s matchup with Iowa.

Will Ragatz: The Iowa game is absolutely one of the more important games Northwestern will play in 2016, because of the revenge factor and the chance to gain ground on the defending division champs, but I’m sticking to my claim that the Nebraska game is more important. Let me explain.

First of all, I disagree with your idea that Nebraska will be an easy win. Northwestern was outplayed for much of last year’s matchup with the Cornhuskers in Lincoln and was lucky to escape with a narrow win. I think Nebraska is going to be better in Tommy Armstrong’s final year and will pose a tough matchup for the Wildcat secondary. There’s also the fact that the Ryan Field crowd will be swarmed by Nebraska red and white. This is going to be a closely contested battle and, with the two teams pretty close to each other, talent-wise, will go a long way towards deciding division supremacy.

The reason I don’t think the Iowa game is that important is because I can’t see Northwestern winning it. After that 40-10 embarrassment on Homecoming last season, do you really expect the Wildcats to go to Kinnick and pull out a win in front of 70,000 rabid Iowans? And they don’t need to. Northwestern can still go 8-4 or even 9-3 if it loses to Iowa. However, if the Wildcats fall to Nebraska, I can easily see their division championship hopes slipping away during an October that is guaranteed to be unforgiving, regardless of their record in September. Northwestern needs as big of a cushion as it can build itself early in the season, and that’s what makes the Nebraska game so crucial.

Ian McCafferty: I’m glad you mentioned last year’s game because I think that’s part of what makes it such an important game this year. For the past two years, Northwestern has just gotten absolutely blasted by Iowa, so you know the players want to finally avenge those losses. A win provides not only a standings boost, but a mental boost as well. That also means that yet another loss to Iowa would negatively affect this team mentally, which is not something you want heading into the rest of October. Also you can’t overlook the fact that this is a bit of a rivalry game for Fitz, as he really doesn’t like Iowa.

In this case, I think the likelihood of a Northwestern victory is somewhat irrelevant. Last year I picked Stanford as Northwestern’s most important game because of all the positives that would come if they pulled the upset. They wound up winning that game and we all saw what happened afterwards. I think the Nebraska game is important, but not anymore important than the Western Michigan or Duke games that are necessary for a good start to the season. Once Northwestern plays Iowa, we’ll actually know what kind of team and season this is going to be. Win and you’re suddenly the favorite to win the division, lose and the Wildcats may be desperately hanging on for a bowl berth come November.