This is a game for which you wish there were fans. The pageantry, unpredictability and inexplicability of college football was built for a game like No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 19 Northwestern.
Though there will be no pregame festivities, the energy and attention surrounding this matchup is palpable. Wisconsin-Northwestern dominates the mid-afternoon window on ABC with one of college football’s top broadcasting pairs. This week, national college football media cares about NU, reminding everyone last year was an aberration for Pat Fitzgerald’s consistently solid program while introducing them to one of the country’s best kept secrets in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
In an eight-game season, every game is basically an elimination round. Yet this one is even bigger: a battle of undefeated teams, despite unbalanced schedules, jostling for the inside track to win the Big Ten West. The winner, though not guaranteed, becomes the heavy favorite to take on Ohio State or Indiana in the Big Ten Championship with the conference crown and potentially a College Football Playoff berth on the line.
It’s building to a moment for Northwestern, an opportunity for the Wildcats, who are off to their best Big Ten start since 1996, to show that they aren’t merely happy to play in this type of game but win it.
The ‘Cats had a similar contest two years ago against the Badgers, when unranked NU upset No. 20 Wisconsin 31-17 at Ryan Field. But both teams are better than they were then, and the West isn’t the only thing on the line. In 2018, it felt like winning the division would be the apex of each team’s journey. When Northwestern won the West that year, people paid attention only after the fact and hardly even then. It just kinda happened and nobody knew what to do. In 2020, winning one of college football’s wildest divisions may only be a step toward larger aspirations.
“With us both being undefeated, it has a lot of implications on how the West is going to play out, so we’re treating it like a championship game for sure,” offensive lineman Gunnar Vogel said.
Wisconsin, after two blowout wins and two cancellations due to COVID-19, has a 17 percent chance of winning the National Championship, the third-highest in the nation, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor. With Iowa and Indiana left on the schedule, it has the chance to notch two more quality victories and pad its resume prior to the Big Ten Championship. The Badgers are used to controlling their destiny.
Paul Chryst’s team has long been a bastion of stability and execution, even before he took over as head coach. Since 2010, Wisconsin ranks seventh in the FBS in wins with 102 and sixth in top-15 AP Poll finishes with six. Over the past six years, UW has compiled a 36-10 conference record en route to four Big Ten Championship appearances. It’s almost always anchored by a rock solid defense, which has placed an average of 13th in the nation in points allowed over the past decade. The Badgers can blow opponents out or grind them down, either way is sufficient.
It’s fair to say Pat Fitzgerald has turned Northwestern into Wisconsin lite. The Wildcats stand fifth in the conference with 31 B1G wins since 2015, and while it might not be as powerful or successful as its foe from Madison, the two programs share several key characteristics: a defense-first approach; a desire to run the ball; and an emphasis on execution and not beating themselves. It’s old school, smash mouth football at its finest.
“I love watching people getting punched in the face, people responding to it,” said Fitzgerald. “We’ve played some really good defensive teams this year and we are gonna play the best defense in the best Big Ten, probably the best defense in the country.”
A win for Northwestern would catapult it to a place it hasn’t been since it won the Big Ten and made the Rose Bowl during a magical run 25 years ago. The Wildcats have played in and won some big games since then, but rarely have they been undefeated with such a clear path to another huge matchup in front of them. It’s not unreasonable to say that if NU wins Saturday, it can and should finish the regular season ranked in the top ten. With games against only Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois, who are a combined 3-9, it would all be there for the ‘Cats. I won’t go so far as to talk about Northwestern and the Playoff, but here’s a graphic to help paint the picture.
Those numbers are low, yes, but they’re higher than what any NU fan is used to.
Northwestern has already made a statement this year, starting this pandemic season 4-0 after a putrid 3-9 outing that featured a historically bad offense.
Fitzgerald and the Wildcats can make another statement as they go for their first win over a top-10 opponent since they upended No. 9 Nebraska in 2011. They aren’t favored to win, but that’s when they have so often shined. They’re sure to get gut punched a couple of times, but that’s just how they like to play. Northwestern isn’t afraid of a rock fight — it embraces the pain, even when it might not be necessary, to the chagrin of fans.
For three-and-a-half hours on Saturday, Northwestern can show America how beautiful its ugly, often aggravating style of play is. The ‘Cats are tied with Navy for the most one-possession wins in the country since 2006 with 48, and it seems foolish to think this matchup wouldn’t be tight. The last time these two teams met ranked in the Top 25 was in 2015 when No. 20 NU beat No. 21 Wisconsin 13-7 in Madison.
Wisconsin is the 10th-ranked team in the country for a reason, and few doubt the Badgers’ abilities. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them an 86 percent chance to beat Northwestern. While NU fans might argue that number is too high on Wisconsin, few will argue that they expect victory.
With a perfect record, there are exciting possibilities to dream of. They could all be gone in an instant, but the fact that they exist at this point in the season is something to celebrate in itself. A win this Saturday makes those dreams one step closer to reality.