Entering 2021, Northwestern faces the daunting challenges of installing a new starting quarterback, mitigating numerous defensive losses and keeping pace in an uber-competitive Big Ten.
But another obstacle that shouldn’t be overlooked is that Pat Fitzgerald and the ‘Cats will have to have to get reacclimated to a full 12-game slate after playing just nine regular season games in 2020.
A season ago, NU suited up against only Big Ten opponents (discounting their bowl game beatdown of Auburn). This year, however, their schedule includes several non-conference opponents, which should provide for some entertaining duels.
Between battle-tested B1G foes and Evanston newcomers, here’s how the Wildcats have fared historically against their 2021 opposition.
Note: All records courtesy Winsipedia.
All-Time Record: 20-39
Last Five: 3-2
Since 2010: 4-4
Although the Spartans hold the cumulative advantage in this rivalry, NU has certainly pulled even in recent memory. Speaking of which, Fitzgerald & Co. will have this matchup highlighted for a number of reasons, most notably as a chance at vengeance against MSU and Coach Mel Tucker, who ended Northwestern’s bid for an undefeated season with a win over the ‘Cats in East Lansing late last year.
Fun fact: When Michigan State puts on the pads at Ryan Field on September 3, it will commence the fifth straight season in which these two cross-divisional foes will have faced.
All-Time Record: 0-0
The Sycamores will become NU’s first non-conference regular-season opponent since the UMass Minutemen were decimated by the ‘Cats on November 16, 2019. Indiana State and Northwestern have never squared off in either’s program history.
This contest will be especially meaningful for Indiana State, as its team opted not to play a season of spring football during the pandemic. In fact, Coach Curt Mallory’s unit hasn’t even seen game action since November 23, 2019. Of course, this also means that the Sycamores haven’t lost in some 672 days, either.
Regardless, this matchup will be unprecedented for both sides.
All-Time Record: 10-10
Last Five: 3-2
Since 2010: 2-2
Just like in the academic rankings, Duke and Northwestern have gone neck-and-neck on the gridiron.
Given that the Blue Devils are in the ACC, NU hadn’t seen much of them till a spring of non-conference matches took place in the late 2010s. This will be Northwestern’s first trip to Durham since 2017.
One interesting note — in two games vs the Wildcats, former Duke star and current Giants quarterback Daniel Jones went 2-0 with a 67.2 completion percentage, 497 passing yards, 105 rushing yards, five passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns and an interception. Coach David Cutcliffe will be looking to replicate that type of performance, though his team has struggled in the last few seasons.
Fitzgerald and the ‘Cats will hope to leave Wallace Wade Stadium by breaking the tie, maybe even with former Northwestern Athletic Director and current ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips in attendance.
All-Time Record: 3-1
Last Five: 3-1
Since 2010: 0-0
Just four weeks into the season, Northwestern will have already faced three non-conference teams.
As one may expect, the Bobcats and Wildcats have not sparred much, last meeting in 2008. Believe it or not, Northwestern has hosted Ohio on every occasion, as it will do on September 25.
Not only is possibly preserving an undefeated season at stake in this one, NU also has the capability of edging yet another premier journalism program and declaring its superiority of sources (if only that were a real bowl game).
All-Time Record: 6-8
Last Five: 3-2
Since 2010: 5-5
Though Nebraska hasn’t had a winning record since 2016, Northwestern still hasn’t performed as expected against the Cornhuskers, per se.
In their last matchup, the Wildcats put the clamps on by holding Nebraska to just 13 points and squeaking out an eight-point win. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil will aspire to do much of the same in what figures to be a monumental game in the careers of both Scott Frost and Adrian Martinez, each of whom has underwhelmed in Lincoln thus far.
All-Time Record: 1-3
Last Five: 1-3
Since 2010: 1-0
It’s somewhat hard to fathom that Northwestern has only played Rutgers four times, but what may be even more surprising is NU’s dismal 1-3 program record against the Scarlet Knights.
Recently, the sample size has been extremely limited, as this will be the first meeting between the schools since 2018. Moreover, this will only be Rutgers’ second ever appearance in Evanston, its first in 32 years.
Coach Greg Schiano matched the team’s win total from 2018-19 a year ago in just nine games, but this one would seemingly favor the Wildcats rather than the squad with no bowl appearances since 2014.
All-Time Record: 15-58-2
Last Five: 0-5
Since 2010: 0-6
When Ryan Hilinski, Cam Porter and Brandon Joseph enter the latter portion of their team’s schedule, they’ll swim in water that’s far more chartered.
The tendency of playing familiar foes begins in Ann Arbor, where the Wildcats will duel with the Michigan Wolverines.
Unfortunately, history is not on Northwestern’s side. NU has just two wins over Michigan this century, and the team even went a ludicrous 30 years between wins at one point.
One silver lining is that Northwestern’s last win versus the Maize and Blue came on the road in 2008. Additionally, Michigan and Jim Harbaugh are coming off of a putrid season 2-4 season, so maybe the tide has turned purple.
All-Time Record: 36-54-5
Last Five: 3-2
Since 2010: 5-4
Both recently and holistically, the Golden Gophers have proven to be a relentless opponent for the Wildcats.
Under P.J. Fleck, the Gophers have emerged as a true contender within the Big Ten West, having earned a national ranking as high as No. 7 in 2019. Furthermore, numerous NFL players have recently come out of the Twin Cities, including Antoine Winfield Jr. and Rashod Bateman.
Northwestern was slated to match up against Minnesota in 2020, but COVID-19 derailed those ideas. Regardless, this figures to be a hard-nosed battle between two upstart programs, as NU aims to have more treats than tricks just a day before Halloween.
All-Time Record: 28-51-3
Last Five: 4-1
Since 2010: 5-5
In broad terms, Iowa has had Northwestern’s number, yet zeroing in on recent memory indicates that the Wildcats have begun to emerge from both Ryan Field and Kinnick Stadium with wins.
It’s been well-documented how much NU and Iowa flourish in one-score games, and that principle certainly applies in this rivalry. Four of the last five meetings have been decided by just one score.
Northwestern’s 21-20 victory in Iowa City a year ago truly cemented itself as a threat for the West division crown, and Fitzgerald has the opportunity to amplify the national noise his team makes in this late-season matchup.
All-Time Record: 37-60-5
Last Five: 2-3
Since 2010: 4-4
Northwestern’s program numbers against Wisconsin largely mirror that of Iowa — overall futility paired with a resurgence of sorts in the last few seasons.
NU’s clash with the Badgers in Evanston was potentially the highlight of its 2020 season, as the Wildcats pulled off the upset of the No. 10 team in the country by harassing Graham Mertz in the backfield on the way to tallying three interceptions on the day.
This game could undoubtedly have implications upon the Big Ten West winner, as both teams seem poised for strong seasons in 2021 and have together won each of the past four division titles. Consider this one must-watch in a contest between two shutdown defenses.
All-Time Record: 33-51-1
Last Five: 4-1
Since 2010: 6-1
Purdue is one of few B1G rivals that Northwestern has dominated in recent memory. The ‘Cats’ lone loss to the Boilermakers in the last 10 years was by a mere two points.
Though Evanston and West Lafayette have tried-and-true programs, this contest will take place in Wrigley Field in the “Wildcats Classic.” More specifically, this will be NU’s first regular season game in a neutral site since playing Illinois at Soldier Field in 2015.
One can only hope that this contest doesn’t leave fans with as sour a taste in their mouths as the Cubs’ recent teardown.
All-Time Record: 54-55-5
Last Five: 5-0
Since 2010: 8-2
With a win against the Illini on November 27, Northwestern would match its primary rival in wins in the all-time head-to-head record.
In fact, “rival” may be a loose term barring Illinois’ recent performance against the Wildcats, as NU is on a six-game winning streak in which five of said victories have been by two or more scores.
New coach Brent Bielema hopes to make a triumphant return to the college football landscape by righting the ship in Champaign, but Illinois is depths below the surface sans a winning season since 2011, and a purple and white Northwestern anchor definitely isn’t buoying anything.