It's no secret that Northwestern football and Pat Fitzgerald in particular love to flaunt that they represent an elite academic institution while running a big-time collegiate football program in one of the nation's premiere conferences. Phrases like "Prepared for life" and "It's not just about the next four years, but the next 40 years" have become staples of the program, as they should be. That's a huge part of the appeal of Northwestern: combine elite academics with the opportunity to showcase your skill in front of the nation against top competition. When Northwestern defeated both Stanford and Duke, it declared itself the king of the elite academic institutions, having scheduled defeated Boston College, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Duke, Rice and California among others. Even Notre Dame. Of that group, Northwestern has lost once under Fitzgerald: to California in 2014, one year after it had beaten the Golden Bears in Berkeley.
"Our mindset here was 'Let's play those teams and hopefully have success on the field so we can have success in the living room (of recruits) and success in recruiting,' and we've been relatively fortunate that way," Fitzgerald said.
So, while Fitzgerald's mind is solely focused on the on-field product Saturday night—he's hoping to lead his team out of the disastrous 0-2 hole it has dug itself—the ramifications of Saturday night extend further than simply the what the scoreboard says when the clock hits triple zeroes.
Since 2013, here is how Northwestern and Duke stack up in terms of recruits that they both offered and one of the two received a commitment. Following the chart are year-by-year breakdowns of how the two programs match up.
(NOTE: All rankings and player details based on 247 Sports.)
|Recruiting class||Northwestern class rank / Duke class rank||Players who chose Northwestern||State||Avg. 247 composite||Players who chose Duke||State||Avg. 247 composite||247 composite advantage|
|2013||52 / 70||S Godwin Igwebuike*, S Kyle Queiro^||OH, NJ||0.8646||CB/S Evrett Edwards||VA||0.8535||Northwestern|
|2014||47 / 60||NONE||N/A||N/A||CB/S Alonzo Saxton||OH||0.8568||N/A|
|2015||54 / 51||DT Jordan Thompson, WR Flynn Nagel*, G Jared Thomas||OH, IL, IN||0.8677||LB Ben Humphreys*, LB Joe Giles-Harris*||CA, NJ||0.8879||Duke|
|2016||52 / 33||CB Roderick Campbell, DE Tommy Carnifax, G Nik Urban||MO, OH (2)||0.8599||LB Koby Quansah, LB Alexander Gagnon, S Jacob Morgenstern||CT (2), NC||0.8556||Northwestern|
|2017||31 / 24||DE Earnest Brown, S J.R. Pace, SB Trey Pugh, LB Blake Gallagher, CB/WR Kyric McGowan, S Bryce Jackson||TX (2), GA (2), OH, MS||0.8469||QB Jack Sears, DE/LB Drew Jordan, TE Jake Marwede, RB Deon Jackson, S Damani Neal, ATH Joshua Blackwell||CA, GA (3), IL, MD||0.876||Duke|
* = projected starter for the Northwestern vs. Duke matchup Saturday
^ = Queiro was listed as a starter but is out, per this week's injury report.
Cutcliffe took over a dormant Duke team in 2008 and has done a phenomenal job rebuilding it both on the field and on the recruiting trail. It's been a long process, but look at one trend from 2013 to 2017: His classes have moved up in the rankings every year. That's remarkable. Northwestern's no slouch, though, either—in fact the Wildcats' average class ranking over the past five years is has a better ranking than the Blue Devils'—and Pat Fitzgerald's 2013 class turned out far superior to Cutcliffe's in terms of head-to-head results. Northwestern has a very solid safety tandem in Igwebuike and Queiro (even though Queiro will miss the Duke game with injury), while Evrett Edwards never saw the field much for Duke and transferred to Iowa State.
This was really the jackpot year for Fitzgerald, even though the class ranking may not be all that impressive. Seven current starters came from the 2014 class, including quarterback Clayton Thorson, star running back Justin Jackson and statistically the best kick returner in Northwestern history, Solomon Vault. This was a big year for Northwestern naturally, as it was greatly influenced by the very successful 2012 that included a bowl win over Mississippi St. Duke didn't offer a single prospect that ended up at Northwestern but did end up with Alonzo Saxton, who chose Durham over Evanston.
Two recruiting cycles ago, Cutcliffe really began his ascension, nearly breaking into the top 50 nationwide while reeling in two highly-touted recruits that Northwestern also wanted. His class ranked higher than Fitzgerald's did. Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris will form the starting linebacker tandem for Duke on Saturday—Duke plays a 4-2-5—and both have been very good in their young careers. Humphreys bypassed a redshirt year and played in all 13 games, including two starts as a ture freshman. Giles-Harris, meanwhile, redshirted his first year but took over next to Humphreys this season, beating out returning starter Tinashe Bere.
Northwestern also has a starter from this class (Flynn Nagel) as well as highly-touted defensive tackle Jordan Thompson, who battled minor injuries and has gotten off to a slow start in 2016 after a promising true freshman campaign. Nagel was a last-minute switch from the Blue Devils to the Wildcats, and the local product already has as many catches this year (four) as he did all of last year.
Cutcliffe took his biggest jump in 2016 while Northwestern reeled in yet another solid but not particularly notable class. With both teams reeling in three prospects that the other offered, though, last year's recruiting cycle really began to show that Duke was going to challenge other top academic institutions for top high school talent.
The rivalry between the two schools on the recruiting trails really has really come full circle in the class of 2017. Both teams have reeled in six recruits that the other offered, and there's still time to add to that. Northwestern went into Georgia, a pipeline state for Duke, and brought in Kyric McGowan and J.R. Pace. The Blue Devils' top three recruits, Jack Sears (No. 5 QB in the nation), Drew Jordan and Jake Marwede, all had significant interest from Northwestern, with Sears being one of Fitzgerald's top priorities. The Blue Devils were also able to steal Marwede from the Chicagoland area, a great example of Cutcliffe's recruiting prowess. Both teams have very good classes at this point.
"We recruit a lot of similar guys," Fitzgerald said this week. "We're similar programs. I've got so much respect for coach Cutcliffe. He's done just an absolutely phenomenal job down there, and you look at their roster and you look at a lot of guys we recruited. He probably looks at our roster and there's a lot of guys he recruited."
So the main priority for Saturday night, by a wide margin, is to win. A win would do a world of good for this team. The world of good it would do on the recruiting trail certainly doesn't hurt, either.