On Wednesday 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 their takeaways.
A couple places where I differed was ranking Iowa second and Purdue fourth. I think that despite the Hawkeyes breaking in a new quarterback, having to play them week 2 will prove tough, especially since it’s the first road trip under all these new protocols. As for the Boilermakers, they always play Northwestern close, and that group of scary talented wideouts is one NU’s defense has struggled against.
Past the first three games, I had a tough time differentiating the middle of the pack. Wisconsin will be the toughest game as the highest-ranked team in the conference, and both Minnesota and Iowa on the road will be demanding challenges for the Wildcats as well. However, the rest of their matchups are must-wins, and I felt that Purdue, Michigan State and Nebraska all posed relatively similar challenges for NU but are manageable if Northwestern’s can find offensive success early on.
I had a hard time finding a distinction among Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, but I still think that the Badgers are the best team in the Big Ten West no matter who is behind center. Rashod Bateman’s return will really help the Golden Gophers, while Iowa promises to be a fun time as well. Other than that, not much explanation is needed. Purdue, Nebraska, and Michigan State fall into that middle category of toss-ups, while I’m fairly confident the ‘Cats can take down both the Terps and the Illini.
My ranking of Wisconsin and Iowa as the two toughest opponents for the ‘Cats is pretty unassailable, as between the two schools they’re a guaranteed 18 wins a season, not to mention their always dominant line play might be a problem for a team that lost Joe Gaziano and Rashawn Slater. Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan State filled out the 3-5 slots on my rankings due to being on the road and their proximity in schedule placement to the Wisconsin game. Maryland and Nebraska are both bad, but NU vs Illinois = HAT is an indisputable property of college football, earning the Illini the distinction of the most winnable game for the purple and white this year.
Maryland is a program in the midst of a rebuild, as in Michigan State. Illinois is, well, Illinois, so they’re always rebuilding. Purdue will benefit from the return of Rondale Moore, but overall, both the Boilermakers and Nebraska are above-average teams at best. As for my top three, Iowa sits slightly behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, and while Rashod Bateman opting back in only helps the Golden Gophers, I still believe the Badgers remain the top dog in the West.
I think that Iowa will be a big challenge mainly because of how early in the season the game is, but ultimately Wisconsin and Minnesota are going to be our hardest opponents. And if Maryland isn’t the easiest game to win, we have other problems. If you want a longer explanation of my record predictions, listen to Pound the Talk.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are just about universally ranked first or second. I justify having UM first because it is a road game and the Gophers should have their starting quarterback. Iowa is the best of the rest at number three, with a road game at Michigan State, who’s always tough, slating in as Northwestern’s fourth hardest game. The next two opponents, Nebraska and Purdue, are tossups difficulty-wise and Northwestern should beat both Illinois and Maryland.
I knew who my top two and bottom two would be immediately, but the middle ranks were particularly challenging. I felt like I had to rank Maryland seventh just because we haven’t seen the new offense Mike Bajakian has installed yet, and along similar logic, I put first-year head coach Mel Tucker and Michigan State at sixth. Nebraska at fourth is perhaps the biggest stretch, but I think it’s a guarantee that game will be very close given recent history in the matchup.
Evan Bergen Epstein
Despite returning their top two backs from last season, a poor run-blocking offensive line and a quarterback room that could be in disarray following a few tough weeks has Purdue slotted low in my rankings. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa will be tough to knock off, but every other matchup is up for grabs.
Outside of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, I think that Northwestern has got a good shot at winning the other five games on their schedule. Maryland, Illinois and Michigan State are all programs that weren’t great last year and have lost key players in the offseason. Although Purdue will have a healthy Rondale Moore and Nebraska returns most of their starters, if NU’s offense can even be mediocre, then a winning record should be attainable for the ‘Cats.
Rashod Bateman’s return to P.J. Fleck’s offense gives Minnesota the slight edge over Wisconsin and Iowa as Northwestern’s toughest opponents this season—taking on the Badgers at Ryan Field rather than Camp Randall works in the ‘Cats favor as well. Illinois, Maryland and Michigan State are all recovering from disappointing seasons, so if NU can keep the momentum going from last year’s HAT victory, they should be able to lock in at least these three wins.
Even without Jack Coan, Wisconsin is, in my eyes, the only true playoff contender in the Big Ten West. If the ‘Cats can find a way to beat them, it would surpass all upsets since the 2014 win in South Bend against Notre Dame and give the program a major boost. Otherwise, no outcome in any other game would truly shock me, given the overall weirdness of this season and 2020 as a whole.
With the return of 2019 Biletnikoff Award Finalist Rashod Bateman to the lineup, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck will look to build off his breakout season last year and continue the Gophers’ offensive mastery against the ‘Cats. It’s tough to play at Minnesota, as proven by then #5 Penn State’s 2019 loss at TCF Bank Stadium. Don’t expect a rebounding Northwestern team to walk away from Minneapolis with a win.
I am truly surprised that I was the only one who picked Iowa to be the hardest game of the season. Wisconsin and Minnesota may be the superior teams in terms of pure talent, but the Iowa matchup is slated second on the schedule. The Wildcats’ under Pat are historically bad at the beginning of the season: the Wildcats’ started 1-8 last season, 1-3 in 2018, 2-3 in 2017, and 1-3 in 2016. Even more alarming, Northwestern is only 3-5 in the first two games of the season since 2016.