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Analyzing Northwestern’s new new schedule

A very favorable slate for the Wildcats. We’ll see you in Indy.

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Thirty-eight days and a lifetime of Twitter rumors later, Northwestern will host Maryland on Oct. 24 to open its 2020 season. The conference’s eight-game schedule was revealed Saturday morning on FOX Big Noon Kickoff, and this time it feels real, not like we’re just going through the motions.

The third-edition schedule resembles the NU’s original 2020 conference slate, at least in terms of opponents. Said foes should be easier than the prior 10-game COVID conference-only schedule, when the Wildcats were set to face Penn State and Wisconsin the first two weeks and close with Minnesota and Michigan. So much for those brutal bookends.

So let’s take a look.

Pat Fitzgerald and co. should be pleased with this schedule, as it drops NU’s hardest crossover game, sparing them a road trip to Happy Valley. There’s no one stretch of the schedule that’s really daunting. NU doesn’t face Wisconsin and Minnesota, the projected top two finishers in the West division, until well into the season, and it doesn’t get them back-to-back.

To open by hosting Maryland is good for Northwestern. Remember, NU still has a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and its star left tackle opted out. Will it be easy? Of course not. All is not expected to be so smooth offensively, so facing a team that’s expected to finish sixth in the East is about as about as much as you can ask for.

Frankly, the first half of the season is very favorable to the Wildcats. After Wisconsin and Minnesota, the West division is madness and it’s anyone’s guess as to who separates themselves. Iowa, Purdue, Nebraska and Illinois are all anywhere from eh to decent at this point, but playing on the road is no longer the tough task it might normally be at Kinnick or Memorial Stadiums.

So to start with three matchups in four weeks against second-tier West division teams is manageable.

A trip to Iowa City in week two isn’t easy, but everyone will be rusty in this unusual year, and the Hawkeyes are replacing star quarterback Nate Stanley, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and defensive end AJ Epenesa. Iowa probably won’t look too different than years past, and NU figures to be an underdog on the road, but we’ve heard this song before.

Then Nebraska comes to town, and its fans may still make the trip to tailgate on Canal Shores Golf Course, but Ryan Field won’t be overrun in red. This one will be interesting, not just because the two teams always seem to play each other close, but because of where NU falls in the Huskers’ schedule. Scott Frost will have his players fired up after they did a lot to keep the pressure on the Big Ten to play this fall, but after two years in which they entered the season with a lot of hype, they’re hardly expected to be a juggernaut in 2020.

UNL draws Ohio State and Wisconsin in the first two weeks, which is just so tough. Then they welcome Penn State to Lincoln in week four. They won’t be favored in any of those games. So where will the Huskers’ heads be at in week three? Will they get caught looking ahead to the Nittany Lions, or will they be extra locked in to avoid a potential 0-4 start?

NU will travel to Purdue, which they have beaten five out of the last six times, the following week. The Boilermakers are a very young team that relies on throwing the ball. If Rondale Moore opts back into the season, that gives Purdue a shot in the arm, but it doesn’t fix all its rushing woes or its porous defense. Northwestern’s expected starting signal caller Peyton Ramsey had a career day against Purdue in 2019, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for two more scores.

2-2 has to be the floor for NU through the first half of the season, and if things go right they could be 4-0.

The latter half of the season is tougher than the former since the ‘Cats have to face perennial power Wisconsin and surging Minnesota. In recent years, Northwestern has not fared well against the Badgers when they’ve played early in the season. Despite no Jonathan Taylor for UW, Paul Chryst’s squad will be just fine. With NU’s tendency to start slow, and this game coming in between Wisconsin’s matchups with Michigan and Minnesota, Northwestern won’t — and shouldn’t — be favored in this contest, but all things considered this is a good time to catch the Badgers.

Heading to Michigan State after thanksgiving shouldn’t pose a major issue. Sure, winning on the road in the Big Ten is hard, but Northwestern has won its last two in East Lansing, and the Spartans, led by first-year head coach Mel Tucker, are in a rebuilding phase.

To close out the season, NU will travel to Minnesota and then host Illinois for the HAT. The Wildcats will most certainly not be favored against the Gophers, but the question is how PJ Fleck will follow up a historic 2019. They return many key players, especially if star receiver Rashod Bateman is able to opt back in, and lord knows what the conditions will be in Minneapolis on the first weekend of December.

As for Illinois, well, we know how this goes. The Illini probably won’t be a bad team, but even so, this is a win for Northwestern.

All in all, this is a very manageable schedule for the Wildcats. There’s no reason why they can’t go 5-3, and if they exceed expectations could be looking at a six-win season. Throw in a pleasant surprise, and Northwestern putting together an underdog run would be a 2020 storyline.