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A definitive ranking of Northwestern football’s 21st-century FCS opponents’ logos

Panthers and Redbirds and Black Bears, oh my.

Northwestern running back Anthony Tyus III stiff arms Indiana State defenders during a college football game on Sept. 11, 2021.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s Week Two of the Wildcats’ 2006 season. After blowing out Miami (Ohio), NU is slated to play its first FCS opponent in program history — the New Hampshire Wildcats. This will be Northwestern’s first home game since losing head coach Randy Walker to a heart attack in June, so the team has a bigger reason driving it this Saturday.

Very little goes right for the ‘Cats. New Hampshire takes less than five minutes to establish an early 13-0 lead. NU fires back with two touchdowns of its own, but it’s not enough to keep pace with New Hampshire’s blistering no-huddle offense. The Wildcats of the Northeast steal the win at Ryan Field, 34-17.

This begins Northwestern’s complicated relationship with its FCS adversaries. This article is not about reliving some of the embarrassing losses the ‘Cats have suffered over the years. Instead, I’ll sort through the logos of all 11 FCS teams that NU has faced, taking into consideration both aesthetics and the history behind the mascot. With that being said, let’s get to ranking!

11. Northeastern Huskies

Before Northeastern ended its football program in 2009, the Huskies sported some of the most boring uniforms I’ve ever seen — and their logo was no different. They donned a red-and-black “N” on their helmets, neglecting to get creative with their canine mascot. There was so much potential, but the bland serif typeface couldn’t help a team that dissolved just two years after the ‘Cats blew them out in a 27-0 victory.

10. Indiana State Sycamores

When most people think of the Sycamores, they envision a young Larry Bird lighting up the Missouri Valley Conference. A powder blue jersey with pinstripe shorts just oozes late-1970s charm. But Indiana State’s modern football team has no such character. The team’s logo consists of “Sycamores” laid over a silhouette of the state, leaving much to be desired. I need to see more imagery that pays homage to the beautiful tree. NU hewed the Sycamores in a sound 24-6 decision in 2021.

9. New Hampshire Wildcats

New Hampshire’s rendition of the best mascot in college football (shoutout to Willie) definitely gets points in the ferocity department. Nonetheless, the muted blue-and-gray color scheme is reminiscent of a high school team. According to UNH’s website, a wildcat is “small and aggressive — like New Hampshire.” No one does a Wildcat like Northwestern, except when northeastern rivals bested the purple-and-white in 2006’s 34-17 clash.

8. Eastern Illinois Panthers

No one can deny that the Panthers’ logo looks menacing, but another blue-and-white palette is nothing to write home about. The side profile is very similar to Penn State’s Nittany Lion shield, so I have to penalize them for a lack of originality. The panther is a pretty derivative mascot, but just seven schools were using it when Eastern Illinois adopted it in 1930. Nowadays, 29 institutions across the country sport the big cat in their athletic branding. NU bested the Panthers in 2011 and again in 2015 for a combined score of 83-21.

7. Illinois State Redbirds

This bird is angry — it looks ready to charge like Brian Dawkins in his prime. You rarely find this kind of emotion in a logo, especially in the NFL. This is how to make a small bird look intimidating (ahem, Arizona Cardinals). The Redbirds had their wings clipped in a 37-3 loss to the ‘Cats in 2010 but got their revenge in a 9-7 victory in 2016.

6. South Dakota Coyotes

It’s pronounced KY-ohts, the University of South Dakota will have you know. On each helmet, the school’s initials are nestled in a red coyote paw with its claws out. The vermillion and white logo is certainly fitting, as the coyote is South Dakota’s state animal. I think the school could use more than the paw to show its state pride, but it’s a solid emblem that reminds me of the San Francisco 49ers’ throwback uniforms. The Wildcats bit the Coyotes in a 38-7 rout in 2012.

5. Maine Black Bears

First, Maine’s mascot is named Bananas, which is absolutely wonderful. Legend has it that the local police chief loaned a bear cub named Jeff to the university in 1914. When Jeff stood on his head at a football rally, the crowd went “bananas.” That’s just great stuff.

Maine’s logo is half-cast in shadow and mid-roar, contrasting with a typical black bear’s lack of aggression. The university could stand to freshen up the font behind the bear, which looks slightly outdated. Back in 2013, Maine made the ‘Cats (ranked No. 18 at the time) work for a 35-21 win.

4. Towson Tigers

Once known as the Knights, student John Schuerholz pushed for Towson to become the Tigers in 1962. Sixty-one years later, the Tigers prowl the CAA, and Schuerholz is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame as a front office executive. Towson’s logo takes me back to the mid-2000s before minimalism wreaked havoc upon graphic design. The bottoms of the “T” and “N” end in a sharp point like a tiger’s teeth, and the motion lines coming off the cat itself look great. NU took the Battle of the Cats in a 47-14 blowout in 2009.

3. Western Illinois Leathernecks

Both the name “Leathernecks” and bulldog logo are rooted in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1927, head coach Ray Hanson gained permission to use the two symbols as homage to his service in World War I. Oh, and he was also the athletic director and coach of the baseball and basketball teams — Hanson had a lot of influence.

The bulldog’s three-quarter profile stares deep into your soul while bearing its teeth. Plus, the combination of purple and yellow is a refreshing look. The Wildcats soundly beat the Leathernecks in a 24-7 result in 2014.

2. Howard Bison

The current Bison logo has only been in use since 2015, when Howard differentiated itself from the Buffalo Bills. The HBCU’s transition from a charging side profile to a head-on look worked in its favor — the university now has a unique emblem to call its own. The ominous logo consists of an eye-pleasing combination of navy, storm blue and white. It’s an excellent silhouette for a team looking to make headway in the MEAC. The Bison will square off against the ‘Cats on Saturday during homecoming weekend.

1. Southern Illinois Salukis

Southern Illinois features one of the most unique FCS mascots, and its logo is a perfect blend of style and realism. As one of the world’s fastest dogs, the saluki meshes with a football team that wants to get out and run. Plus, the history behind the mascot’s selection is rich — Southern Illinois is known as Little Egypt for its fertile land. The saluki is the royal dog of Egypt and is just one example of honoring the region’s history. Who can’t say no to a good dog? The Salukis let the ‘Cats out of the bag in a 33-7 loss in 2008, but they shocked the purple-and-white last season in a 31-24 upset.