The Big Ten released a revised version of the 2021 football schedule last Friday that saw Northwestern have games reshuffled, most notably those against Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin moved to the back half of the season. Beyond the change in game order, nothing new came from the release for the ‘Cats.
With the slate of opponents staying identical, Northwestern should look at the 2021 season as one of tremendous promise. The Wildcats were able to secure matchups against lackluster non-conference and Big Ten East opponents and avoided top-tier programs from the East.
NU will open the season seeking revenge from head coach Mel Tucker and Michigan State, who upset the ‘Cats a season ago. Despite the 2020 loss, this season opener is one that will favor Fitz and crew as the Spartans are still in a program rebuild.
The Spartans are the first of three matchups against Big Ten East opponents, the others being at home against Rutgers and a trip to Ann Arbor to go against Michigan. In a conference division that includes powerhouse program Ohio State and top teams in Indiana and Penn State, somehow Northwestern is matched up to play the three bottom feeders of the division in 2020.
The toughest in this trio of games will likely be against the Michigan Wolverines, who have the talent to beat any team in the nation despite a down year in 2020. Head coach Jim Harbaugh may have found his quarterback in Cade McNamara, and the Wolverine defense could return to typical dominance with few senior departures
Regardless, Northwestern is faced with three extremely winnable cross-divisional games out of a group of elite programs.
Outside of the conference, Northwestern matches up with three squads that aren’t expected to pose much of a threat. The first is a home matchup against the Indiana State Sycamores, an FCS squad who most recently posted a 5-7 record. One should never take an opponent for granted, but for a team as talented as the ‘Cats, an FCS program should not be too tough to handle.
After the Sycamores is a trip to Durham to play the Duke Blue Devils and hosting a game against Ohio to finish the non-conference schedule. Duke, the lone Power Five program on the non-conference slate, was 2-9 in 2020. The Blue Devils finished in the bottom half of the ACC in every major offensive category and surrendered the most points per game in the conference a season ago. Ohio played a mere three total games and is the biggest mystery on the schedule.
A strong factor in why Northwestern’s schedule appears to be one with potential for great success is the placement of the Wildcats’ most crucial conference games. Matchups against Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin all lie later in the season. This gives Northwestern the ability to build up momentum earlier in the season against lesser opponents before seeing the other top teams in the division.
The stretch of hosting Minnesota and Iowa and traveling to Wisconsin is intriguing in two regards for Northwestern. First, this is a sign of respect nationally. Rather than have critical games such as these earlier in the season, the conference is respecting the ‘Cats as contenders for the Big Ten West. Second, and more importantly, this three-game stretch will likely make or break the season. If Northwestern escapes with at least two wins, it should be in a good place to return to Indianapolis for the third time in four years.
Iowa remains a top-level program in the conference and will play as such led by Spencer Petras, and Minnesota and Wisconsin are poised to bounce back after disappointing seasons with talented quarterbacks of their own.
Northwestern’s schedule offers the opportunity to replicate a performance similar to 2020, but the ‘Cats will need to replace a plethora of key starters offensively and defensively. NU will likely be favored in a majority of its games. The uninspiring group of non-conference games combined with the avoidance of conference top dogs puts the ‘Cats in a primed position to win.