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ROUNDTABLE: What’s the biggest game of Northwestern’s season?

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Numerous challenges sit in front of the ‘Cats this year.

Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Auburn v Northwestern Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Ben Chasen: Wisconsin

It’ll get mentioned a number of times in this piece, but it seems that, within Northwestern’s locker room, all eyes are on Indy, and that the sole focus of this team right now is getting themselves back to Lucas Oil Stadium come December. If that’s the case, then this has to be the biggest game of the year. For starters, as it seems right now, Wisconsin is the favorite to carry the division once again, so no win would do more to advance NU’s hopes of another Big Ten West title than one against its top dogs — err, Badgers. On top of that, a full Camp Randall is, in my opinion, one of the toughest places to get a win in the Big Ten, perhaps only behind Ohio Stadium. So, while last year’s win over UW was a landmark win for the ‘Cats, a win against their northern rivals in 2021 would be more impressive, and likely more substantial towards their chances of getting another shot to knock off Ohio State for Big Ten glory.

Daniel Olinger: Michigan

November 15, 2008, and November 4, 2000. Those are the only two 21st century dates on which Northwestern football has beaten the Michigan Wolverines, with UM emerging victorious in the other 11 matches. The 54-51 win in Evanston that sealed a share of the Big Ten title for the ‘Cats back in 2000 might be the most beloved and memorable game in the program’s history, but over 20 years have passed since then. Likewise, the ‘08 Michigan team that NU defeated posted the worst record for a 12-game season in their program’s long tenure. In short, it’s been a long time since Northwestern beat Michigan, and even coming off a down year, most third-party prognosticators would inherently lean in favor of the Wolverines when comparing the two squads’ raw talent. The chance to take down a fully-actualized Michigan team in Ann Arbor is one of the few feathers Pat Fitzgerald still needs in his cap, making this year’s showdown the headliner in my estimation.

Mac Stone: Wisconsin

I was very tempted to say Michigan, but its status as a member of the Big Ten East is what knocked that game down for me. It also could have been Iowa, given that Northwestern’s matchups with the Hawkeyes always seem to come down to the wire and have some sort of conference championship implications. My personal belief, though, is that Wisconsin is the team standing between the Wildcats and Indianapolis. The Badgers had a topsy-turvy season in 2020, dealing with COVID outbreaks and finishing 4-3. They return some quality production and will once again have one of the best defenses in the country. The last time Northwestern played at Camp Randall in November, the game was one to remember. Here’s hoping we get more of the same this time around.

Jacob Brown: Michigan State

Toughest game on the schedule? No. But I think this one is the biggest. For one, Northwestern clearly didn’t give MSU much thought last year, and it cost them big. The ferocity with which this squad approaches this game will tell us a lot about their resolve. Secondly, I think it will do a lot to create (or destroy) confidence in this squad. Is there a QB1 that can lead the team? If Hunter or Hillinksi comes out gunning, you have to feel good about that position. What will the WR, LB, and DL corps look like? There’s a lot of position battles, and we will very likely get some key insights there. Most of all, it’s a chance for Fitz and Co. to play in front of fans again. After missing one of the team’s best seasons, the Wildcat faithful get to see the team live in a rare night game, on an even rarer Friday. The tone for the season will be set in this game. Will NU start strong, or experience the early-season struggles that previous Fitz-led teams have?

Michael Barthelemy: Wisconsin

The Badgers are always NU’s biggest game in my opinion. It’s been a rotation of Wisconsin and Northwestern representing the Big Ten West in Indy for the past five seasons, and the sides project to be two of the stronger squads in the division. Last year’s win over Wisconsin was season-defining for the ‘Cats, and the 2021 version will feature similar stakes. This game is late into the season, though, and there is a chance that either or both teams won’t be in contention for the West division crown. But if history repeats itself, this is the game to circle on the schedule.

Jackson Gordwin: Michigan

I hate to sound melodramatic, but I truly believe that this game has the potential to be the nail in the coffin for Jim Harbaugh’s coaching career at Michigan. Harbaugh could very well come into this game with a 4-2 record with losses to either Wisconsin and Washington or Wisconsin and Nebraska. If you take a look at NU’s schedule, the ‘Cats have a fairly good chance to be undefeated going into the Michigan game. According to ESPN’s FPI, there is a 17.5% chance that the Wildcats are perfect coming into this game, whereas Michigan only has a 6.6% chance of achieving the same feat. Even more alarming for the Wolverines is that there is just over a 20% chance that either of the 4-2 scenarios that I listed earlier actually come to fruition. Look out for the week eight Northwestern vs. Michigan matchup, as a 4-3 record could result in the termination of Harbaugh.

Bradley Locker: Michigan

Entering their Oct. 23 date with the Wolverines, the Wildcats have a fairly solid chance of being undefeated, given that the most talented team they'll have faced seems to be Michigan State in the season opener. At this moment, Michigan is truly best summed up as a question mark — although it's hard to imagine things going as cataclysmically as they did last year for Jim Harbaugh. Regardless, this game figures to be a test for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern, as the 'Cats have an opportunity to turn the tide in the Big Ten and declare themselves perennial B1G contenders — possibly against highly-touted Illinois native J.J. McCarthy.

Meredith Revsine: Michigan State

The Michigan State game will be the most important of this season. Not only will it be the first game the ‘Cats have played in front of a crowd since the pandemic, but it is also against the team that shocked them with a huge upset in 2020. The combination of these factors and the fact that this game is NU’s first of the season makes this the perfect opportunity for our Wildcats to prove themselves.

Andrew Katz: Michigan State

The opportunity to lose by 40 to Alabama in the College Football Playoff disappeared when the Spartans upset the ‘Cats last year. Revenge will be on every fan’s mind when the teams play in less than three weeks, and, since the starting quarterback is yet to be announced, this week one matchup can determine the Wildcats’ offensive outlook for the entire season. Also, Northwestern’s performance week one is usually indicative of how their season goes; since 2007, NU has posted a .500 record or better every year they win their season opener, sans 2013.