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Which non-conference opponent will give Northwestern football the most trouble?

Sycamores, Blue Devils and Bobcats, oh my!

Duke v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Believe it or not, we’re now less than a month away from Northwestern football’s 2021 campaign getting underway, and we here at Inside NU are doing our absolute best to get you prepared for all the trials and tribulations of football season.

Which is exactly why we need to talk about Northwestern’s non-conference opponents this year, or more specifically, which one could be an upset threat.

Duke, Ohio and Indiana State might not be names that scream upset on paper. However, when you take into account that Northwestern hasn’t gone undefeated against non-conference opponents since 2015 (2013 if you count their bowl loss against Tennessee), you may start doing some double takes.

The Wildcats are no strangers to slow starts and losing games they really should win. In 2018, the ‘Cats were simply outplayed from start to finish by Duke at home and then were flat out embarrassed by Akron a week later. The Zips finished that season 3-9, while Northwestern ended up playing in its first ever Big Ten championship.

Those games, of course, are just two examples out of a myriad of non-conference games that Northwestern should have walked away with. I could talk more about both the 2016 one point loss to Western Michigan or the 2016 two point loss to Illinois State, but I won’t, mainly because I want you, the reader, to not have to think about such traumatic events again.

Let’s bounce back to this upcoming season’s non-conference opponents. Indiana State is the only FCS of the three and is also the only Northwestern opponent to have opted out of the 2020 season. Considering they went 5-7 in the last season they played with a seven point loss to Kansas and a 38 point loss to South Dakota, I’ll be discounting the Sycamores for now, which I hope won’t come back to bite me. That leaves Duke and Ohio as the two potential upset threats.

Northwestern isn’t a team that has faired extremely well against Duke. In their last four matchups, the Wildcats and Blue Devils have split the games evenly at two a piece going back to 2015. Meanwhile, while the Wildcats don’t have as much history with Ohio (they’re 2-1 against the Bobcats all-time), but they have struggled in recent history against teams from the MAC, going 3-3 against the conference since 2014 with losses to Akron, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois.

To state the obvious, Ohio does not represent the entire MAC. However, Northwestern’s history against the conference is somewhat concerning. When you couple that with the fact that an already decent Ohio team from last season is returning 62% of its offensive production and a whopping 70% of its defensive production, it’s a bit worrisome. The Bobcats have a balanced offensive attack that could poke some holes in a less-than-usually experienced Northwestern defense if the Wildcats aren’t careful.

Ohio isn’t the main concern when talking about Northwestern’s non-conference opponents though. That honor goes to Duke. As previously mentioned, the Wildcats are 2-2 in their last four dances with the Blue Devils, and they haven’t won a game in the matchup since 2016. The last time they visited Durham, Duke embarrassed the ‘Cats 41-17.

While Duke wasn’t a very good team last season by any stretch of the imagination, going 2-9 and finishing 13th in the ACC, they’re returning over half of their production on both offense and defense. Additionally, the Blue Devils return one of the top running backs in the conference this season in Mataeo Durant, who rushed for 817 yards and eight touchdowns on an insane 6.8 yards per carry.

On paper, the Wildcats are a far better team than both the Bobcats and the Blue Devils, yet both of these teams will be trap games prior to the start of conference play (if you exclude the season opener against Michigan State). Northwestern will face Duke in a sleepy 3 p.m. game just a week after coming off of a potential rout of Indiana State. Meanwhile, NU will see Ohio a week after facing Duke and potentially jumping out to an undefeated start if they’re able to take care of business.

If Fitz and Co. can get their team off to a quick start, the Wildcats will be staring at their first season going undefeated against non-conference opponents since 2013. However, inexperience, a new defense and a few trap games are looming, and with Duke and a MAC representative on the schedule, there are few reasons history couldn’t repeat itself.