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Reimagining college conferences: Northwestern’s hypothetical 2020 season

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It’s certainly unorthodox, but we don’t hate it.

Sports Illustrated

Last week, Sports Illustrated released an article detailing a hypothetical realignment of the college football conferences based on location, so teams would not have to travel as far during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under these circumstances, Northwestern would face all new conference foes except Illinois, with the Big Ten being split among four different conferences.

Our editors dove into what this season would look like for Northwestern under this realignment.


It’s August 2020. COVID-19 is still in full swing, and the NCAA has some serious decisions to make. It’s not feasible for teams to travel hours by plane every weekend to play games and a bubble scenario simply isn’t possible for college athletics.

Conference realignment is the only solution.

This is what it looks like.

Sports Illustrated

Spread across 10 conferences are 120 teams (10 fewer than now — 11 current FBS members relegated to FCS and North Dakota State elevated). But this time, they’re aligned by region, and what was formally known as the Big Ten has now been dispersed into four different conferences. For more context on the rules and objectives of this realigned universe, here again is the link to the SI article, which can (and probably should) be scanned before reading much further.

Northwestern alongside longtime rival Illinois found themselves placed in the “Mid-American” conference — or what we at Inside NU like to call the Notre Dame Didn’t Want A Conference And We Could Do Without The State Of Indiana But Fine Conference, FINE for short. In addition to facing its cross-state rival yearly, Northwestern would also regularly take on Kentucky, Louisville, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, NIU, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky and West Virginia.

As for the rest of the Big Ten, the majority rests in the Great Mideast with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue. Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland join the Yankee Conference while Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska land in the Great Midwest.

Because of the geographical restrictions, there is no nonconference play, and teams will face their new conference counterparts Week One.


To kick off its 11-game season, Northwestern hosts its Music City Bowl foe and fellow Wildcats — Kentucky. Fresh off a win over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, Kentucky enters Evanston guns blazing and jumps out to an early 7-0 lead after quarterback Sawyer Smith throws a bomb downfield to Josh Ali. However, Northwestern fights back in its home opener. With Peyton Ramsey under center, the grad transfer leads his team to three consecutive scores to take a 13-7 lead, which would hold at the half.

In the second half, Kentucky regains a 14-13 lead with an early touchdown in the third, and the two Wildcat squads battle for the remainder of the game as the clock winds down. Northwestern is unable to score on five consecutive possessions, but Ramsey finds a 82-yard game-winning touchdown drive with under two minutes to play to secure the first win of the season for the ‘Cats.

Next up is a trip to Huntington to face the Marshall Thundering Herd, only the week leading up to the game is filled with Medill majors calling the team “The Thundering Turd” and thinking themselves clever.

Nevertheless, Marshall is a strong program, with a combined record of 25-14 over the past three seasons, and are up to the task against the former tenants of the Big Ten. Led by star running back Brenden Knox, who amassed 1,387 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in his sophomore season, the Herd take the ‘Cats by surprise in the first half and enter the break with a 17-7 lead, as Northwestern is infamous for failing to show up in these kinds of games.

However, following an inspiration halftime message from Fitz, the defense locks all windows and doors to hold Marshall at bay, and three consecutive touchdown drives in a furious third quarter is all Northwestern needs to secure the 28-17 victory and advance to 2-0.

The third week of the pandemic season brings the ‘Cats to Louisville, Kentucky, to face the revamped Cardinals under a rising big-name coach in Scott Satterfield. The two teams’ strengths are diametrically opposed to one another, as Bill Connelly projects Louisville to produce the 14th best offense in the country by S&P+ but only the 84th ranked defense. And on the flip side, Connelly pegs NU to have a miserable offense, ranking them 110th overall but an elite defense with the 17th best S&P+ rating.

The resulting clash is another closely contested game. Having already defeated Kentucky, who has beaten Louisville each of the past two years, one might conclude by the transitive property of college football that NU > Louisville. But in this hypothetical matchup of the hypothetical season — where the ‘Cats have already had to endure two tight games and are playing in unfamiliar territory, and the Cards return their dynamic backfield of QB Malik Cunningham and HB Javian Hawkins — the game ends in a 23-17 win for Louisville, dropping Northwestern to 2-1 on the season.


Following the first loss of the season, Middle Tennessee State is next. MTSU has established itself as a solid program under Coach Rick Stockstill for the past 15 years, but Fitz has the squad filled with rage and determination after the letdown. Isaiah Bowser goes off for a 212-yard performance with three touchdowns, and a scoop-and-score from Paddy Fisher solidifies the blowout as NU cruises to an easy 38-14 victory.

But there is no time to boast, as the ‘Cats now find themselves in the “Weird Small, Private, Academic School in a Big Conference” bowl with a new rivalry established between NU and Vanderbilt and the winner receiving a bowl full of denied undergraduate applications and the contact of one alumni mentor who is never going to respond to any of their emails.

Northwestern has only played Vandy four times in history and twice this century — the latest was a NU victory in 2012. Offense comes at a premium, with both squads in 2019 ranking in the bottom 10 nationally in both points and yards per game. However, it’s clear Northwestern is the better team. The Wildcats return much more experience, and it shows. They dominate the clock, with Bowser logging 120 yards and a score, Ramsey finding John Raine for a TD and running one in himself. The score, 24-13, may not indicate it, but this game was never that close. 4-1 ain’t a bad start.

A trip to Morgantown is never easy, even against a rebuilding West Virginia team that struggled offensively in 2019. But the Mountaineers are feisty under second-year head coach Neal Brown. The ‘Cats come out flat and can never establish the run game as Ramsey faces constant pressure from a talented defensive line on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The defense gets it together in the second half, but a couple of late turnovers doom any hopes of a NU comeback, and they drop to 4-2 (0-2 in the state of West Virginia) despite being the better team on paper. The more energized team won, 26-17.

The next week, Notre Dame and its rabid fans invade Evanston again to renew Northwestern’s fifth-ranked rivalry, according to Colin’s completely scientific method. In 2018, the CFP-bound, fourth-ranked Irish handled a late charge from the Wildcats but earned a 10-point win. This Brian Kelly team is better. Stud quarterback Ian Book returns with a strong offensive line and a scary front seven on the other side of the ball. After a lot of uncertainty for the independent program, Notre Dame not only is pleased to be playing in 2020 but face a much easier schedule compared to its normal gauntlet. The offensive line handles NU’s front. Book does well what’s asked of him, and the Irish cruise to a 28-14 victory, dealing the ‘Cats their second consecutive loss.


After two straight losses, a visit to a rising Tennessee team might not be what the doctor ordered. But Fitz is still fuming over the embarrassment of the 2015 Outback Bowl, and NU senses it can’t afford a three-game slide. They do get some help, though, from 2020’s unusual circumstances. Several defensive players have to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 a few days earlier, weakening a strong unit. The Wildcats execute well after two poor weeks, with Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees having their best games of the season to this point as Rashawn Slater creates consistent holes through which Bowser scampers to a tune of 90 yards and a touchdown.

However, the talent-laden Volunteers refused to go away, as the NU defense surrenders three touchdowns to Jarrett Guarantano through the air. The game is knotted game at 24 with only 45.6 seconds remaining (how fitting). But this only sets the stage for Ramsey, who carries his own vendetta against Tennessee after his Indiana squad blew their double-digit lead in the 2020 Gator Bowl. The heroic transfer quarterback marches the ‘Cats down the field with four quick lasers, getting the ball all the way to the 23-yard line.

The ball is down, and the kick ... NO! NO! IT’S A FAKE! PLACE HOLDER HUNTER JOHNSON HAS THE BALL, AND HE FINDS JOHN RAINE IN THE BACK OF THE END ZONE FOR A TOUCHDOWN! ‘CATS WIN 30-24!!!!!!!

Fitz decided that he was not going to let the game’s fate rest on Kubhander’s foot after last year’s debacle(s) against Nebraska (and Purdue and kinda Stanford), opting in favor of the fake and cementing the moment in the annals of college football history forever. The day becomes even more glorious as Kevin Trahan emerges from a trap door underneath the turf, plants the Northwestern flag at the center of the field Baker Mayfield style and sings the worst possible rendition of Rocky Top ever heard as the ‘Cats move to 5-3 on the season.

Next week’s trip brings the team to DeKalb, Illinois, to face the NIU Huskies in truly bleak weather. The snow-topped field serves to even out the playing field between Northwestern and their inferior opponents, as the gritty Northern Illinois team manages to salvage a 10-10 score entering the fourth quarter. But the frost can only sustain them for so long, and two touchdown runs by Bowser in the fourth quarter help the ‘Cats officially secure bowl eligibility in 2020. As recompense for their grievances, NIU is forced to drop the “u” from their name as a respect to the real NU. Goodbye, NI.


A trip to face Western Kentucky acts as the precursor to the HAT, and the Hillltoppers’ pass-heavy attack gives Northwestern quite the scare early on. But as they’ve done all season, the ‘Cats buckle down, grind out scores on offense and force takeaways on defense, with a pick-six from J.R. Pace being the spark on this occasion. The final score reads 27-17 Northwestern, and the team returns to Evanston with a 7-3 record to defend their most sacred piece of headwear.

In the regular season finale, Lovie Smith’s defense is again exposed as Andrew Marty runs for 896 yards and seven touchdowns on 30 attempts as Fitz goes crazy with the Wildcat formation. Illinois desperately tried to get back in the game through the air, but only made things worse as Brandon Peters threw four pick-sixes — all to Fisher — on four consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter. Add in six passing scores for Ramsey, a successful two-point conversion following every touchdown and a 102-yard field goal from Kuhbander, the ‘Cats walked away with the HAT and a 139-0 victory.

(Yes, this actually happened. Don’t deprive us of this glorious hypothetical massacre. HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT. One for every point baby)

The 8-3 regular season record is an incredible turnaround from the dismal 2019 season but unfortunately not enough for the conference title. The Fighting Irish were too strong to stop for any team and easily cruised to an undefeated 11-0 season and earn the first-ever FINE conference crown.


New conference alignments calls for new poorly named bowl games. Northwestern receives an invite to the Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC Bombastic Boston Tea Party Bowl. What an honor.

Their opponents — a Stanford team that rebounded from its own down year in 2019 to an 8-3 record as well. There were a lot more interesting and unexplored options available, but the higher ups at be said, “Hey look! The nerd schools, lol. Let’s make ’em play a sport and have the announcers mention APR after anybody makes a hustle play.”

Sigh.

Fresh off cutting a third of their athletic teams, the Cardinal finished with the same record as the ‘Cats to bounce back from a 4-8 2019, losing close contests to USC and Oregon before falling to Cal for the second straight season. Quarterback Davis Mills remained solid under center, while a veteran receiver corps and running back Austin Jones broke out this season.

A major liability for the Cardinal going into this game was star cornerback Paulson Adebo’s opting to sit out the bowl game ahead of a potential selection in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. To make up for this huge loss, head coach David Shaw opted to call upon the outside hitter of Stanford’s soon-to-be-disbanded men’s volleyball team to fill in for Adebo.

The weather at Mälort Field at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst is brutal, with freezing temperatures and blinding fog impairing players and coaches alike. After initially relying on Marty in the Wildcat, Fitz opts for an even more effective way to gain yards: T.J. Green quarterback sneaks. Heroic displays from the Wildcat defense and four Kuhbander field goals with a blindfold on leads to a 12-0 slugfest of a win.

While NU is well placed to have consistent football success and potentially challenge for the conference championship every once in a while, basketball is a bigger challenge. With Kentucky, West Virginia and Louisville (and ever-pesky Middle Tennessee) all on the docket multiple times per year, seasons on the hardwood could be a slog.


Thanks for indulging us in a fun exercise. We played out a football season and surmised the challenge of a basketball season, but what do you think of the Mid-American conference’s effect on other Northwestern sports? Let us know in the comments.