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2019 Northwestern football winnability rankings, explained

Our writers defend their picks.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Northwestern at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yesterday, we published a full spreadsheet detailing how our staff thought the difficulty of Northwestern’s schedule would play out. Now, we asked them all to expand on one takeaway from that exercise.

Davis Rich: Early conference tests will define NU’s season

Looking at NU’s 2019 schedule, I can’t help thinking back to 2017. That year, Northwestern dropped games against No. 4 Penn State and No. 10 Wisconsin before the leaves in Evanston changed colors, taking the Wildcats out of Big Ten West contention two games into conference play. Of course, NU went on to win seven straight Big Ten matchups to finish in second place in the standings.

Things feel similar this year. Northwestern has Michigan State, which it has defeated three times in a row, at home. But Sharpie-ing in a win over a Spartan team that will likely boast one of the best defenses in the country would be irresponsible. Then, NU goes on the road to face a rebuilding but ever-dangerous Wisconsin team and a Nebraska team it surrendered 482 yards and 31 points to last year.

Oh, and NU hosts Ohio State two weeks later.

NU probably needs to go win at least 2-2 to remain near the top of the standings before its schedule eases up. With a new quarterback, three new offensive lineman and an aversion to winning before Columbus Day, the Wildcats may have to prove their mettle before they hit their stride.

Matt Albert: The test Stanford presents cannot be understated

Starting off the year with a difficult opponent away from home is a tall task. While those who cover Northwestern Football love to talk up Hunter Johnson, at the end of the day he is a new quarterback stepping into an offense with a relatively inexperienced offensive line and a second year running back. Northwestern’s recent early stumbles in the past few years only provide more concern for me. I think it’s important to recognize that the result of this game also plays a big role in creating the narrative of this team. The team has spent all media day and has prominently established the goal of getting to the Rose Bowl, and the legitimacy of this team will be put to the test week 1 in Palo Alto.

Caleb Friedman: The middle of the West is muddled

I know I’m not breaking any news here, but the meat of Northwestern’s schedule — Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska and even Minnesota — is murky in terms of where each stands. I put Wisconsin at No. 3 behind Stanford, mostly because I trust K.J. Costello and Wisconsin’s quarterback situation is uncertain. I also think Iowa is a better team than Wisconsin, but having to go to Madison makes Wisconsin a more difficult game than Iowa at home, in my view. I couldn’t pull the trigger on putting Minnesota higher than Michigan State or Nebraska, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Gophers finish near the top of the West.

Claire Kuwana: Michigan State won’t be that bad

Yes, their run defense was one of the best of the country. And a majority of the unit will be returning this year. But their offense 125th out of 129th in scoring, and they don’t really have any standout players to replace Felton Davis III. It’s not a guarantee for sure, but I do think we have a much better chance at beating Michigan State than a lot of other teams on the schedule. We play them at home, and this would be our fourth win in a row against them. For some reason, the Wildcats just seem to perform really well against the Spartans, and I don’t think that is going to change this year.

Noah Coffman: This schedule is stacked

Much has been made about the impressive front half of Northwestern’s 2019 slate, and the Wildcats will certainly face a significant challenge in trying to get to the potentially all-important Ohio State matchup on October 18th with their heads above water.

But the back part of this schedule is sneakily pretty difficult as well: Jeff Brohm, Rondale Moore, and Purdue are always ready to pull a fast one, Indiana will certainly put up a fight at home, if, as expected, the Hoosiers have a shot at their first bowl appearance under Tom Allen, and Minnesota will likely be fully operational by the end of “Year Two” under P.J. Fleck.

With difficult road environments and trap games galore, Pat Fitzgerald will have to keep his team very focused while pulling out some more of his patented close-game magic to reach the relatively high expectations brought on by the consistency of the past few years.

Lia Assimakopoulos: ^ What he said.

You know you have a stacked schedule when you can only fill out picks 10-12 without saying, “oh they could actually lose that game.” With the exception of UMASS, UNLV and Illinois, the Wildcats have a pretty steep uphill battle, and given recent history we can’t even overlook those seeming cupcakes. This season is already an emotional rollercoaster.

Joe Weinberg: UNLV will be a harder win than Illinois

When does the annual Northwestern crapping of the bed against a weaker non conference opponent at home become a legitimate concern instead of a joke? The Runnin’ Rebels and their dual-threat quarterback will head to a student-less, half-empty Ryan Field in September looking for a marquee win against a Power Five opponent they know to be vulnerable in these types of games. Sound familiar? Don’t get me wrong, both of these games should be easy wins, but I legitimately think NU is more of a lock to beat a lowly Illinois team in Champaign than UNLV at home.

Avery Zimmerman: A tale of two halves

As we all know, Northwestern has a habit of slow starts and strong finishes, and the schedule plays right into that this year. Early season games against Stanford, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State put the ‘Cats in a nearly impossible spot, but the back end of the schedule is the polar opposite. It’s feasible that Northwestern could start the season 1-6 and finish at 6-6. But if NU can pull out a 4-2 or even a 3-3 start, it could be a special season.

Eli Karp: It’s not all about the Wildcats

In my recent dose of college football media consumption, I’ve seen a lot about the Big Ten West. The same division which was the butt of many jokes last season is now being talked about nationally as the division to watch. We can talk all about how Northwestern needs to stay afloat during its early-season gauntlet, but unless this team surprises again — which it could — and runs through the conference, some of the Wildcats’ season is going to hinge on what the West turns out to be. To me there are a clear two to three games that are the toughest and a clear three that are the easiest. Everywhere in between? Good luck.

Caleb mentioned above that the middle of the division is a mess. I’ll take it a step further and say I don’t even know what the middle is. Remember when Clayton Thorson threw a pass behind Flynn Nagel that winless Nebraska intercepted with the Wildcats down 10 with nine minutes to go? NU was about to be out of the divisional race on the second weekend of October yet two weeks later was in the driver’s seat. I foresee the West beating up on each other since winning conference games on the road is hard, especially when you have quality opponents week in and week out. Nothing about this season is shaping up to be pretty. Get ready to pull your hair out. Get ready to have a few years taken off your life. See you in Indy.