It’s SB Nation’s Rivalry Week! There’s no better way to celebrate than by ranking Northwestern’s Big Ten rivals (and some other folks) based on their respective histories and importance to the ‘Cats. Rivalries, especially in college sports, are generally defined with well-documented histories, geographical and cultural implications, trophies and nicknames. At the same time, many schools have more than one rival or may hold different perceptions of a certain matchup. In different sports, certain rivalries prevail as well.
With the wide range of sports Northwestern plays, it’s important to take many factors into consideration to rank its rivals. Ultimately, these schools will be ranked by analysis of the following: proximity, history, interaction (how frequent, competitive and memorable are contests between NU and the respective school), reciprocal value (how much the opponent cares about Northwestern) and annoyance (how annoying is the school and its fans?). I rated each out of ten.
Is this comprehensive? I tried my best. Definitive and final? No. Can you go ahead and make your own rankings in the comments section? By all means, I insist.
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get into it.
University of Illinois-Chicago, Chicago State, Illinois State, Eastern Illinois, Northern Illinois
I’ve grouped these schools together primarily because of their proximity to Northwestern’s campus. However, none of them play in the Big Ten.
I’m a huge supporter of an intra-city basketball tournament for Chicago’s college basketball programs (pro tip: do NOT mix up Allstate and Wintrust Arenas, commenters will get angry), as an opportunity to develop rivalries among some of these schools. Yes, the ‘Cats occasionally play these schools in football, losing to both FCS team Illinois State and MAC powerhouse Northern Illinois in the past decade, and will occasionally take them on in other settings, but a lack of engagement and fervor among fans very much undercut the proximity these schools have to Evanston.
University of Chicago
From 1897 to 1925, the ‘Cats and Maroons were massive rivals representing the north and south sides of the city of Chicago. Of course, the U of C gradually withdrew from competitive Division One athletics by the middle of the century, leaving no opportunities for the two schools to compete. In the context of academics and admissions, the two schools are certainly rivals, but this site is a sports blog, not US News & World Report.
Duke and Stanford
Northwestern has made a nice habit of scheduling these intersectional foes in football. NU also competes against Duke and Stanford regularly in field hockey and women’s lacrosse, in which the Blue Devils and Cardinal both have nationally ranked programs to challenge the ‘Cats for supremacy on the field. Joe McKeown’s squad has also clashed with the Blue Devils on the court, while Chris Collins could be an unlikely candidate to replace Coach K if he can lead the ‘Cats back to the NCAA Tournament.
Ultimately, any major rivalry between Northwestern and these two academic powerhouses would have to overcome the mutual respect among the fan bases rather than an overwhelming sense of hatred or annoyance marking rivalries further down the list.
The Ramblers’ run to the Final Four in 2018 captivated a city and a nation, leaving the briefly upstart Northwestern program as an afterthought on the Chicago basketball scene. A regular series in men’s and women’s basketball with the Jesuit school down Sheridan Road could do a lot to capture the hearts and minds of the local college basketball environment. Men’s and women’s soccer, as well as softball, get their shots at Loyola’s comparatively small athletic department annually, but wouldn’t it be great to see these two institutions face off more? AMDG.
The Nebraska of the SEC is an honorable mention solely because of this.
Now, to the rankings.
Reciprocal Value: 2
The Big Ten sought the New York metro media market by adding Rutgers to the conference, arguably an odd fit. Piscataway is fairly close to Maryland and Penn State, but you’ll hardly find any Scarlet Knights alumni in Chicagoland.
Rutgers hasn’t been a member of the Big Ten long enough establish itself in the annals of Wildcat history, but the two squads clashed on the gridiron in 2018 for just the fourth time in history.
Most Wildcat teams except will see Rutgers on an annual basis, but only Isaiah Bowser’s breakout game in 2018 and men’s basketball’s OT collapse this February come to memory.
Who is Rutgers’ main rival? I tried searching for it on the internet, and I did not get a straight answer. You’d probably have to go back to the old Big East to find one. I doubt they’d put Northwestern high on that list unless they are still mad about the romp in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament.
In terms of annoyance or hatred of Rutgers, Northwestern’s star wrestler Sebastian Rivera recently opted to transfer to Rutgers for his final season of eligibility. The Scarlet Knights are undefeated against the ‘Cats in wrestling, and that is pretty annoying.
14. Penn State
Reciprocal Value: 2
State College is a solid nine-hour drive from Evanston. Only Maryland and Rutgers are further east. The Nittany Lions don’t have a huge presence in Chicago like Wisconsin or Michigan, and while this distance between fanbases is huge, I can only pray my fellow editors and I will be on a plane to Happy Valley on September 26.
The ‘Cats and the Nittany Lions started regular meetings when the latter joined the Big Ten in the early nineties. Arguably their most memorable encounter in football was in 1995 when sixth-ranked Northwestern took down twelfth-ranked Penn State in a nationally televised showdown en route to the Big Ten title.
Women’s lacrosse has taken center stage in the past decade, with the two schools matching up in five crucial Big Ten tournament matchups. On the gridiron, Penn State leads the overall series 13-5, but the ‘Cats have won two of the last three.
Happy Valley’s main Big Ten rivals are Ohio State and Michigan, as well as nearby nonconference foes West Virginia and Pitt. Nittany Lion fans surely perceive Northwestern as another distant Big Ten foe with no added emotion, hatred, or fervor.
In terms of cult-like, large college fanbases, Penn State is certainly up there. How much of that fanbase interacts and directs itself at Northwestern’s comparatively small supporting core is rather limited when compared to other Big Ten schools is small, but the outrage and property damage in State College after the firing of Joe Paterno alone probably warrants a high score.
Reciprocal Value: 3
The lowest-ranked long-standing member of the Big Ten on this list, Indiana perhaps doesn’t elicit the same negative energy as its fellow Hoosier-state B1G counterpart in pretty much every sport except basketball. The school’s proximity to the Chicago area is notable, but its fanbase does not hold the same monolithic enormity of other schools on here.
Scheduling in football has seen the two programs play each other only five times in the past decade, the ‘Cats winning four of those contests. Perhaps their most notable matchup in any sports was women’s basketball’s overtime victory at Assembly Hall this year, a massive victory on their path to the Big Ten regular season title.
Indiana fans also prioritize Purdue in all sports, as well as Kentucky in basketball. There isn’t a ton of hostility between the IU and NU fanbases in comparison.
One might argue that Indiana basketball is the equivalent to Nebraska football, leading to the fan entitlement which raises the annoyance score. However, relative to the exposure to other fanbases which Northwestern sees, Indiana fans seem less annoying than perceived.
Reciprocal Value: 5
The local Catholic school the ‘Cats have regularly scheduled in men’s and women’s basketball throughout their history has become a fixture for McKeown’s and Collins’s squads over the past few years.
The men’s basketball teams first met in 1971 and played annually until 1988, with an exception in 1982. The Blue Demons perhaps served as Chicago’s preeminent basketball powerhouse, as they were ranked in the top ten in three of these matchups with the ‘Cats. The two programs have faced off every year since 2013 and will do so until 2024.
In December, WBB suffered its first loss at the hands of Doug Bruno’s team in a 70-68, last-minute heartbreaker.
Basketball alone can’t push DePaul very high on this list, but the notion of Northwestern having a nearby rival in nonconference play to raise the profile of Chicago’s CBB scene is not insignificant.
Reciprocal Value: 5
Like Rutgers but different. For football and men’s basketball alone, the Terps would probably rank near the Scarlet Knights and Penn State based on distance and the lack of history between the two schools. Perhaps the most notable moment came in Northwestern’s 2017 Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinal victory over the 25th-ranked Terrapins.
The rivalry between the two schools emerges in women’s sports.
Kelly Amonte Hiller’s Wildcats and Maryland have clashed in the NCAA Tournament five times in her tenure, including three straight meetings from 2010 to 2012 (two Final Four matchups and one National title). Maryland has the more recent upper hand between two dominant programs with consecutive quarterfinal victories in their last two meetings.
NU shared the Big Ten women’s basketball title with Maryland this past season, and the possibility that the ‘Cats could compete against one of the nation’s best programs on a yearly basis could see the profile of the rivalry rise. Their two contests this year would indicate that.
My annoyance when it comes to Maryland derives from my youth as a Virginia fan, but ultimately, neither Maryland as a team nor a fanbase stands out as particularly irksome to NU.
T-9. Michigan State
Reciprocal Value: 3
Admittedly, it’s quite challenging to differentiate between a lot of these Big Ten schools in quantifying their degree of rivalry to Northwestern.
East Lansing is a quick four-hour drive from Evanston, and there’s always loads of green and white-clad fans at football and basketball games between Sparty and Willie.
However, that the ‘Cats have played Michigan State each of the last four seasons in football, including 2017’s classic triple-overtime victory at home, drives a good amount of disdain between the two schools. Northwestern’s three-game winning streak over a flailing MSU football program felt pretty good, while from the other side probably just felt confusing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include one of the worst losses in Northwestern basketball history, when, in 2018, NU led the second-ranked Spartans by 27 in the first half only to score 11 points in the second half and lose by five.
The Spartans certainly have numbers in terms of fans and attention but pales when compared to its fellow B1G East behemoths, who overtake it in annoyance by a mile. But Mark Dantonio is/was an angry fellow.
T-9. Ohio State
Reciprocal Value: 2
To quote my fearless editor-in-chief, Eli Karp, this is “big bad Ohio State.” Undoubtedly the hegemonic power of the conference, the Buckeyes strike fear, anger, disgust and jealousy in the hearts and minds of many Big Ten fanbases, and Northwestern is no exception. Fans in red come to Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena in droves whenever their squad plays at NU, making for an interesting atmosphere, to say the least.
Historically, the Buckeyes dominate the Wildcats in revenue sports, although the ‘Cats have punched back numerous times. Randy Walker’s team pulled off the huge upset in 2004, and the third quarter of the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game also happened. I don’t remember what happened after that glorious, perfect, godly fifteen minutes of pure bliss and nirvana. NU also nearly upended the sixth-ranked Buckeyes at the Horseshoe in 2016.
Of course, the Buckeyes play in arguably the biggest rivalry in all of college sports against Michigan. Their fanbase, according to my relatives in Toledo, view Northwestern as “just another Big Ten school which needs to be shown its place.”
On that note, Ohio State has perhaps the most obnoxious fans in the Big Ten, outnumbering Northwestern fans in their own arenas. I, along with our entire editorial team here at Inside NU, have personally experienced this irritation. As I walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium after the Big Ten Championship, an OSU fan told me to “have fun at the Lucky Charms Bowl, nerd.” The ensuing Christmas break, my aunt and cousin from Columbus visited my home in Los Angeles and had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to go with them to Pasadena to attend the Rose Bowl Game. I said no and watched Taylor Swift’s Netflix special instead. Hashtag Go ‘Cats.
Reciprocal Value: 5
The Golden Gophers rank lowest of the Big Ten West schools, mainly on account of a lack of true animosity between the two sides. There aren’t terribly many Minnesota alumni in the Chicagoland area, whose drive to the Twin Cities consists of a deceivingly long drive through the Wisconsin countryside.
Northwestern and Minnesota’s first football contest came all the way back in 1892, so there certainly exists some historical precedent between the institutions. Of course, the notorious “Victory Right” Hail Mary winner from 2000 probably still breaks the hearts of some Minnesota fans. Yearly football games drives home the frequency of interaction, but rarely do fans circle the calendar and say “oh, Minnesota’s coming to town.” However, they do have a phenomenal softball program, which has produced and should continue to provide some excellent matchups going forward as NU tries to make its way back to the Women’s College World Series.
While Minnesota puts more stock into its rivalries with Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan, there’s something to be said about the repeated encounters with Northwestern, especially in football. Their success this past season in football under P.J. Fleck deserves a ton of praise. Simultaneously, the university also employs the son of Rick Pitino as its head basketball coach, which irritates me a bit.
Reciprocal Value: 5
Similar to Minnesota, frequency, especially in football, grants Purdue a relatively high spot on this list, although low compared to fellow division schools. West Lafayette is a two-and-a-half-hour southeast of Evanston, and the school has a solid alumni base in The Windy City.
One number that stands out immediately when examining any notion of a Purdue-Northwestern “rivalry” is the Boilermakers’ record against the Wildcats in men’s basketball. Purdue, somewhat consistently successful on the court with two Final Four appearances to their name, holds a 129-46 advantage against Northwestern, helped by a current six game winning streak including that excruciating 61-58 comeback victory at the Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Any game against Purdue in any sport holds some level of importance, although fans and players of both schools will probably prioritize other schools in their angst and hatred. Despite the Boilermakers not having had a breakout football season recently, their peskiness shouldn’t be overlooked.
Reciprocal Value: 3
Yes, Michigan puts almost all its energy into Ohio State and then Michigan State, but the Wildcats and the Wolverines have a pretty long history as well. Northwestern’s first ever big victory on the college football stage came against Michigan back in 1892, a 10-8 slugfest. The no. 25 Wildcats also famously went into Ann Arbor and upset the no. 7 Wolverines in that historic 1995 Rose Bowl season, and arguably the biggest play in men’s basketball history saw the ‘Cats take down Michigan in front of a delirious Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd.
It’s no secret Michigan has a large, vocal, dissatisfied fanbase seemingly angry with the complacency of losing to Ohio State in football and failing at the final hurdle of the NCAA Tournament in basketball. At the same time, this fanbase travels well and has a huge presence in Chicago. The first football game I ever attended was a heartbreaker, as NU blew a 17-point lead at home in front of a mainly maize and blue crowd singing that stupid fight song every five seconds.
Also, Dave Portnoy, the founder and president of Barstool Sports, is a Michigan alum. That alone would give put the annoyance score at a 10 but is perhaps emblematic of the entitlement and self-aggrandizing of this fanbase. They frame themselves as “Michigan Men,” perpetuating this unfounded sense of superiority. The sun quite literally revolves Ann Arbor. It’s probably true that Northwestern fans harbor hate and resentment toward the Wolverines, but I have no clue if this is true or not.
T-5. Notre Dame
Reciprocal Value: 2
Perhaps the non-Big Ten school in the Chicago area with the biggest fanbase, Notre Dame is another hegemonic power surrounded by an aura of pageantry and tradition.
The Fighting Irish and Fighting Fitzes first met in football in 1889, when Northwestern fans reportedly did their best Oliver Cromwell impressions by yelling “Kill those fighting Irish!” The Ara Parseghian-led ‘Cats defeated Notre Dame four straight years in the late 1950s before the Irish lured him to South Bend and renewed their dominance upon the college football world.
The football rivalry flared up again in the nineties, when the Pat Fitzgerald-led Wildcats pulled off a 17-15 upset in South Bend in 1995. After that stunning defeat, the Irish wanted no part of renewing the rivalry of “Catholics vs. Consultants,” only bringing it back in 2014 to another stunning upset at the feet of NU kicker Jack Mitchell.
The two schools have also fought it out in women’s lacrosse, meeting six times in the NCAA Tournament, with NU winning an impressive five times.
As a result of being an FBS independent, ND has many rivalries, making Northwestern pretty low on their totem pole. Notre Dame’s scheduling flexibility in most sports is limited, but, considering the two schools’ proximity and its presence in Chicago (also the fact that NU and ND hold a monopoly on head football coaches whose names sound like background characters in Ulysses), it would be cool to renew hostilities more often.
The Fighting Irish have a large fanbase (especially among non-alumni) and travel well, as seen in 2018’s battle in Evanston. I’ve seen firsthand the arrogance, exclusivity and cult culture of Notre Dame: the pregame Our Father, the fight song, drinking a bowl of punch with about fifty other shirtless dudes in O’Neill or O’Brien or O’Whatever Hall. You get the picture. Notre Dame sucks.
Reciprocal Value: 7
The oft-overrated Big Ten newcomers seem somewhat far from the shores of Lake Michigan, but there’s an interesting disdain between the two schools since the Big Ten was divided into East and West divisions for football. The ‘Cats have gone 4-5 against the Huskers since the latter joined the conference in 2010, a decade filled with drama and intrigue.
In 2013, Nebraska broke Wildcat hearts on a really lucky Hail Mary, while NU’s 2018 run to the Big Ten Championship game saw Clayton Thorson lead a 99-yard game-tying touchdown drive before downing the Huskers in OT and denying supposed savior Scott Frost his first victory. The two also played an overtime game in 2017.
At the same time, the ‘Cats notched two conference victories in men’s basketball over the Huskers while a very clutch Lindsey Pulliam fadeaway secured a huge victory against a strong Nebraska team on the women’s side this past season.
Northwestern’s weird football rivalry with Nebraska has irked the former powerhouse. Another major point of contention between the two fanbases is the abbreviation for the schools. For some reason “University of Nebraska-Lincoln” equals “NU,” but “Northwestern University” equals “NW,” which makes absolutely no sense. That’s pretty annoying in itself, but Nebraska’s well-traveled fan base which overhypes its football team year after year only to go 7-5 or 4-8 really gets on the nerves of Northwestern fans.
Reciprocal Value: 5
No Big Ten city is closer to Evanston than Madison, and Wisconsin has a massive alumni and fanbase concentrated in Chicago. Under normal circumstances, these factors would lead to the establishment of a formal heated rivalry with fervor, intensity, and hatred on par with other Chicagoland-Wisconsin rivalries such as the Cubs-Brewers and Bears-Packers.
Northwestern and Wisconsin’s supposed rivalry lacks these traits, although the ‘Cats have caught the attention of the Badgers a few times in the past decade. Of course, Chris Collins’ squad going into the Kohl Center and defeating a top-ten Wisconsin basketball team during that magical 2016-17 season and, despite some runs of Badger dominance on the football field, NU has notched some memorable victories both at Ryan Field and Camp Randall. Eli and I looked pretty happy when Northwestern defeated Sconnie en route to a Big Ten West title. (Side note: Do you know who’s who?)
Pandemic permitting, Northwestern’s hosting of the Badgers at Wrigley Field in November should raise the profile of this game. Wisconsin has their respective battles with Minnesota and Iowa, but for Northwestern fans, this matchup is always circled.
Wisconsin fans seem pretty friendly. They come in droves to Northwestern games but do not demand the same entitlement as Nebraska, Michigan, or Ohio State fans, so I can’t score them very highly on the annoyance scale. And their teams typically back up any trash talk.
Reciprocal Value: 5
A quick drive across the Mississippi River, this rivalry perhaps exudes anger from Northwestern. Gary Barnett sought a new rival for the ‘Cats in the early nineties and chose the Hawkeyes, who didn't care. Of course, Pat Fitzgerald hates Iowa more than he hates cellphones, according to several of his players. After years of domination by Iowa, Fitz has gone 8-6 against the Hawkeyes while competing for recruits and prestige in the West division.
Iowa, in turn, has begun to take Northwestern a little more seriously in that regard, yet continues to prioritize its long-standing dislikes of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska over the plucky little school in Evanston.
Still, one of the most memorable moments in recent Northwestern athletic history, a 14-10 Wildcat victory clinching the Big Ten West, highlighted by Bennett Skowronek’s absurd touchdown catch, happened against Iowa. Another sport to look out for is women’s basketball, where the Hawkeyes handled the future Big Ten champions back in early January.
Iowa has another devoted fan base willing to travel to away games. Also, when the ‘Cats and the Hawkeyes faced off in men’s basketball at Welsh-Ryan earlier this season, a bunch of Iowa fans sitting below the press box started chanting “theatre major” when Miller Kopp went to the foul line. Uncalled for.
Reciprocal Value: 8
The big one. For the Land of Lincoln.
These two schools battle for the hearts and minds of the great state of Illinois in perhaps the only rivalry of Northwestern’s which has mutual fervor and hate from the other side.
Our obsession with HAT here at Inside NU aside, the Illini are the closest thing Northwestern has to a true rival. Both athletic programs have undergone major stretches of ineptitude. Any attempt to fashion this rivalry after the likes of Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma, etc., has failed in part because of the lack of consistent success by each school.
Nonetheless, the in-state nature and Abe Lincoln’s hat drive this rivalry home. While the importance of the games will rarely be massive on a national map, claiming one’s spot as the best team in the state of Illinois means a ton for the players of each program.
Illinois’ supporters aren’t annoying in nature; rather, they share similarities with Northwestern’s similarly self-deprecating yet hopeful fandom. At the same time, these are inexcusable:
Well, that was long. Sound off in the comments about which school hurts you most (and who you have harassed the most).