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Analyzing Northwestern’s new conference-only schedule

A previously manageable schedule just got a whole lot harder.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, after the Big Ten announced weeks ago that it would be switching to a conference-only, 10-game schedule for all of its teams, the schedules were revealed.

Now, there is absolutely no guarantee that a college football season gets played in 2020, and thus speculating and predicting months in advance seems like a fool’s errand. But this is college football we’re talking about, a sport that inspires articles about Spuddy Buddy the giant potato. Foolishness should be embraced.

So let’s break down Northwestern’s new 10-game schedule, and see just how much the COVID-adjusted slate might impact the team’s overall record.

If that schedule immediately strikes you as surprisingly difficult for the ‘Cats, you’d be correct. Nine of their 10 opponents remained the same from their initial schedule, but their three nonconference matchups against Tulane, Central Michigan and Morgan State were exchanged for one contest against the Michigan Wolverines. Exchanging three relatively secure wins (maybe two, based on NU’s history with MAC opponents) for a season closer versus a consensus preseason top-15 team is a rough draw, especially when defending Big Ten West champion Wisconsin drew Rutgers for their add-in game.

The order of games has also placed increased difficulty on Northwestern, as they now face juggernauts Penn State and Wisconsin — who rank 10th and 14th in Phil Steele’s power poll respectively — back-to-back to kick off the season, rather than on September 26 and November 7 as they originally expected.

Not to mention, contrary to the belief that the schedule would be front loaded with same-division games in order to reduce travel, the ‘Cats will make a 585-mile trek all the way to Happy Valley right off the bat, head back to Evanston, then travel 240-miles to East Lansing, back to Evanston once again and then finally a 229-mile journey to Iowa City. Add it all it up, and in total NU will traverse 2,108 miles in the span of five weeks (including distance on trips back to campus), which feels less than ideal — especially during a time when we are trying to limit teams’ travel.

Looking at those first five games, I’d probably predict a 2-3 with the dangerous possibility of dropping to 1-4. The Nittany Lions and the Badgers are simply too good and present too arduous a task to take on right away at the start of the season. Meanwhile, Iowa returns practically all of their skill position players on offense and a dominant defensive lineman in Chauncey Golston and will probably be favored quite well.

Maryland isn’t quite a perennial doormat, but they’re not far from it, and Michigan State is experiencing a transition period as a program, as the once mighty Spartans are only 27-24 in their past four seasons. That, combined with a new head coach in Mel Tucker and a defense that only returns three starters — I’d predict a win for the ‘Cats in that matchup.

Following the bye week, Northwestern takes on Illinois, and it will be the first time the two teams have not met on the final week of the regular season since 2011, when NU was downed by Michigan State in Evanston 17-31. No further analysis needed here, as Illinois = HAT = Northwestern win.

Going off that, the Nebraska hype train was unbearable in last year’s preseason, and coming off the high of a HAT, the ‘Cats will maul the Cornhuskers in their one and only series of back to back home games during the season. 4-3 baby.

Purdue presents an interesting challenge, as they’re one of the few teams that come close to the Wildcats in numbers of returning starters (19 for NU, 17 for Purdue), including superstar wide receivers Rondale Moore and David Bell. But, given how close the matchup was last year with a depleted Northwestern squad only losing by two points on a last second field goal and the tendency for the Cardiac ‘Cats to get on a roll in the later stretches of the season, I’d chalk this one up as a narrow win over the Boilermakers.

However, the positive vibes end here, as Minnesota and Michigan likely represent two losses in the record books. Sure, the Gophers are unlikely to repeat their historic success from a year ago, especially with superstar receiver Rashod Bateman opting out of the season, but they still have the painfully underrated Tanner Morgan slinging it from the backfield and return all five of their starters from their mountainous offensive line.

Regarding the season finale, Northwestern will hold the distinction of being Michigan’s first non-Ohio State opponent in the closing week of the season since 1942, so here’s to hoping the that NU keeps the 21st century tradition going of pounding the Wolverines into absolute oblivion, crushing all their hopes and ambitions.

It’s an unlikely outcome, but one can dream.

Overall, barring a more than realistic alteration, suspension or shutdown of the season, I’m feeling a 5-5 season for the ‘Cats, one HAT and probably no bowl game given the circumstances, but if so, let’s have it be against Tennessee and try to break the record of 621 comments on that post all those years ago.

Northwestern football is maybe, sort of, not really, but also maybe kind of almost back. Get excited people.