On Tuesday we published a full spreadsheet detailing how our staff thought the difficulty of Northwestern’s schedule would play out. Now, we asked them all to expand on their takeaways.
Yeah, yeah, OSU was my number one, but I think the ‘Cats have a far better shot at beating Wisconsin at home than Penn State in Happy Valley. Ryan Field is not friendly to the Badgers, though I still expect them to win, but at a far smaller margin than the Nittany Lions. Of other conference matchups, Nebraska and Purdue were a tossup for me between seven and eight and a dark horse for me is Illinois — I put the Illini low, but unfortunately could see them becoming more formidable as the season continues.
I don’t think it’s debatable that Northwestern’s three hardest games will be Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin — all are very likely to end in defeat. Compared to my peers, I think the Nebraska contest is rather daunting for Pat Fitzgerald’s team: the Cornhuskers have some firepower in Casey Thompson, OC Mark Whipple and a solid defense, plus were much better than their 3-9 record indicated. The Purdue, Iowa and Illinois games should have the opponent favored, yet Northwestern might be able to sneak a win or two. I’m not super bullish on Maryland, a program against which NU has never lost. Ultimately, the matchups with Miami-Ohio, Duke and Southern Illinois are must-win if Fitzgerald’s team wants to be competitive this year.
I differed from the composite in two areas: I slotted Penn State above Wisconsin and ranked the Maryland game over Nebraska (both behind Purdue at six). Both sets of matchups are on the same level of difficulty. The ‘Cats will be heavy underdogs against the Nittany Lions and Badgers, and slightly less heavy underdogs against the latter pair. The decisive factor for me was that Northwestern will face UMD and PSU in their stadiums. When you consider that NU lost by fewer than 26 points on the road just once last year (and it was down 27-0 at one point in that seven-point loss to Duke), that’s pretty scary. Positive regression may come, but I’d much rather bet on an upset at Ryan Field.
The top three here are pretty established as “I would rush the field” victories for Northwestern, and anyone who didn’t put Wisconsin over Penn State clearly didn’t watch what Braelon Allen did to Northwestern last November. My four through eight (Minnesota, Maryland, Iowa, Purdue, Nebraska) could honestly go any way. I do think that Nebraska could be in the Illinois tier if it wasn’t the opener, which I think makes the matchup that much harder given the team hasn’t established its identity yet. After Illinois, which is kind of in no man’s land on my list, come the three must-wins, although I think there is some upset potential in Duke and Miami OH.
A lot of people have described their entire rankings in this list. I’ll take my opportunity to explain one ranking; to be precise, why I have Nebraska slotted as NU’s easiest Big Ten game this year. Let’s take a glance at the Cornhuskers’ performance in season-opening games since Scott Frost took over as head coach in December of 2017:
2018 — Loss (33-28) at home against the Colorado Buffaloes (who wound up 5-7, 2-7 in Pac 12 play)
2019 — Win (35-21) at home against the South Alabama Jaguars (who wound up 2-10, 1-7 in Sun Belt play)
2020 — Loss (52-17) on the road (with nearly no fans in attendance) against the Ohio State Buckeyes (who wound up going 7-1, their only loss coming in the national championship)
2021 — Loss (30-22) on the road against the Illinois Fighting Illini (who wound up 5-7, 4-5 in Big Ten play)
Overall — 1-3, lone win against a bad group of five team at home
As such, is hard for me to look at Nebraska team and see anything but a team that has routinely failed to come out of the gates hot under their current leadership. What’s more, the Husker open up their season on a different continent a week earlier than they typically would with far more roster turnover than they’ve experienced with Frost at the helm and an all new offensive coaching staff (that doesn’t seem to be embracing, um, more modern techniques in camp). To me, that makes this a must-win game for the Wildcats, who will face a number of more challenging conference games once the leaves are on the ground.
I’ve decided to go with tiers for this.
Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin — Lmao, no way.
Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, Illinois — Wouldn’t pick NU in any of them, but they are all winnable because none of those teams are that good.
Miami, OH and Duke — Both more losable than you think. NU is 3-6 vs Miami, OH, all-time.
Southern Illinois — If they lose this I quit.
There’s an old adage in poker that says “if you can’t find the sucker at the table, it’s you.” Until they can prove otherwise, Northwestern is the sucker. The non-conference games are the best shot at wins, but they’ll take work, given SIU’s record last year, the MAC curse and Duke’s new head coach. Illinois, the no. 9 composite, went 5-7 in 2021 and should be even better this year. I don’t think Minnesota is the fourth best team we play, but I think everyone below them (especially Iowa + Maryland) is more prone to just randomly falling apart for a game or two.
Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin should all be battling it out for the honor of losing to Ohio State in Indianapolis come December 3, but Wisconsin and Iowa should be the most difficult of these two though. Their strong linebacker and secondary corps will painfully expose the Wildcats’ lack of talent at skill positions, and strong run games will easily cut through Northwestern’s weak rush defense (ranked 122nd in 2021). Although the Wildcats are slated to visit State College, Sean Clifford’s offense has question marks on the line, and Penn State’s inexperienced front seven will not be at the same level as those of Iowa and Wisconsin. In what will likely be a tough season for the Wildcats, the only division opponent within serious reach is a rebuilding Illinois program, as other divisional opponents simply have more firepower on both sides of the ball (Tagovailoa on UMD, Autman-Bell on Minnesota, etc.).
I literally just used Bill Connelly’s SP+ Projections because no one or nothing will be more accurate overall than them at predicting how good each of Northwestern’s opponents will be. If I could’ve, I would’ve put a “1” for every single game, but I’ll save my season expectations for a later roundtable.
I went mostly chalk with my picks, so I’ll focus on where I differed from the rest of the staff. Right off the bat, I think that the Dogfight in Dublin against Nebraska will be a tough matchup for the ‘Cats. Fresh off a six-game losing streak to end the 2021 season and still reeling from the 56-7 loss at the hands of Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers last October, the performance in this Week 0 matchup cannot be expected to be high, especially considering the fact that it’s being played in a foreign country. Moving forward to the Conflict in the Cornfields of Iowa, I like the Wildcats over the Hawkeyes. Pat Fitzgerald has had Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s number for a long time now, with a 9-6 record against the Hawkeye headman (and that should be a 10-5 record if it wasn’t for an untimely Andrew Marty interception in last year’s matchup). A win over Iowa in Week 9 could be a statement for Northwestern to prove that they are to be taken seriously this season. Finally, the season finale matchup against Illinois for the Land of Lincoln trophy could be more difficult than my colleagues expect. Despite winning six of the last seven matchups, this Northwestern team looks to be lagging behind what head coach Bret Bielema has been building at Illinois. If the ‘Cats falter at the start of the season, a loss to their all-time rival would be a fitting end.
Who knows though? All of our predictions could be wrong and we’ll witness victories over Ohio State and Minnesota but lose to Southern Illinois and Miami (OH). It is Northwestern football after all...
Northwestern’s opponents can be distinguished into relatively defined quadrants. The top grouping — Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin — are games that seem fairly (actually, very) out of reach for the Wildcats. The bottom quadrant — Southern Illinois, Miami (OH), and Duke — are the must-wins. A loss to any of these squads and I’m slamming the “Off” button on my remote. The middle clusters are teams that, in theory, aren’t that good...but, after all, we’re talking about Northwestern football. Would I necessarily be surprised if Pat Fitzgerald coaches his way to wins against three or more of these six opponents? Well, yes. But crazier things have happened (see: Northwestern forcing four turnovers in the first half in a win against Wisconsin in 2020).
As always with Northwestern football, something that appears to be fairly cut-and-dry is anything but. There are only six games I feel comfortable using pen to put in results for, and those are Duke (win), Southern Illinois (win), Miami Ohio (win), at Penn State (loss), Wisconsin (loss), and Ohio State (loss). As for the rest of the schedule, many of the Wildcats’ opponents (Nebraska, Minnesota, and Purdue especially) have been known to cause chaos in recent years. When you combine all of that with the chaos that is even year Northwestern football, determining winnability becomes almost impossible — because while most games could be victories, they could also easily be losses.