I pride myself on my accurate predictions; last year I predicted NU to go 8-4, and in 2007 I predicted 7-5, I was off by 1 both years (minus 1 in '08, plus 1 in '07), although I nailed the cumulative record over the past two years. I will look to continue that trend into this year and will hopefully predict the 'Cats regular season record within one win. Although I would be more than happy to see Northwestern top my win total.
As noted in earlier previews, Northwestern has an "easy" schedule in 2009. Not that any Big Ten schedule is easy, but NU misses conference front-runner Ohio State as well as a should-be-improved Michigan squad. The Wildcats face four non-threatening nonconference foes (all of whom have first year head coaches). NU has even more in its favor with many of those easier games coming to start the season. Don't be surprised if NU is favored in all of its first six games of the season (the only real question is the Minnesota game, which is a home game for NU). This puts the 'Cats in a similar position as last year, where they managed a 5-0 run to begin the season, which definitely helped propel them to a successful year.
The second half of the year, though, is where things get much tougher: The only "breather" NU gets is a homecoming bout with Indiana (and as demonstrated last year, NU can't exactly take that game lightly). The 'Cats must travel to face a tough MSU team and gets preseason top-10 PSU at home on Halloween in what looks to be the "game of the year" for Northwestern. That game actually kicks off a very difficult home stretch for NU that will make or break the season: It's followed by trips to Iowa and Illinois before NU concludes its season with a home game against Wisconsin. Note that this marks the first time NU won't play its final conference game against in-state rival Illinois in a decade (in 1998 NU ended the year with Penn State).
Northwestern definitely has an opportunity to gain some momentum heading into a tough final half of the season, especially with tough road games against three conference foes expected to end the year as bowl teams (MSU, Iowa, and Illinois). With no "bye" week in the schedule, it will be imperative for the Wildcats to stay as healthy as possible. Although NU responded from some major injuries last year, it's hard to do that year after year. If they do remain healthy and are competitive heading into that October-November strech of games, Northwestern could make an impact in the Big Ten conference race, particularly focusing on the back-to-back games against Penn State and Iowa.
Another quirk is that NU heads to Iowa City for the second consecutive year since this year is the start of a new two-year Big Ten schedule rotation and it just worked out that way. Not that NU should complain, it has a two-game winning streak there (both under Fitz - note that Coach Walker never won in Iowa City, going 0-2).
"Defense Wins Championships"
A highly-quoted statement that NU hopes will ring true this year, especially with the defense as the strong point of this team for the first time since 1996. We've all seen defenses carry football teams before at this level and in the NFL. NU may need this to be the case in order to equal or better last year's success, particularly with so many question marks on offense. As mentioned in the scheduling section, the 'Cats will have a chance for the offense to come along early in the year against lesser competition, but that means that the D must be particularly strong early. They did pretty well starting things off in '08, almost single-handedly outscoring Syracuse in the opener with a safety and TD.
Although NU has been known for its high-flying spread offense since Walker implemented it back in 2000, NU's height of success came with it's D in the starring role back in the mid-90's. Now with that defense back in the spotlight headed by the leader of those teams, Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats will be looking to replicate that success. Of course, NU must have some contribution from the offense. There is promise there with the fleet-footed Kafka at QB and some talented at WRs who have experience in the program but have been buried on the depth chart until now. Most importantly, though, the OL is looking much better than last year - with more depth and experience - and that will definitely help out the new "unknown" skill players on offense.
In NU's toughest games, though, it will likely be the defense's job to put the 'Cats in a position to win the game. PSU's offense, with QB Daryll Clark and RB Evan Royster returning, will be formidable, as will Iowa's with QB Ricky Stanzi. Illinois has some very talented players such as QB Juice Williams and WR Arrelious Benn. Everyone is looking to DE Corey Wootton to replicate last year's pass rush numbers, but the answer on D will be if the unit as a whole can be as or more effective than last season.
Nonconference Win Streak
NU fans may not have realized it, but the 'Cats have now won five consecutive regular season nonconference games, the longest such streak since 1962-1964 (including, of course, Ara Parseghian's final years as head coach at NU). With four winable nonconference games this year, the Wildcats have the chance to extend that streak to nine, which would also eclipse NU's streak of 8 wins from 1958-1961 (during that span of 1958-1964, NU won 17-of-18 nonconference games). Such a streak would be the longest in the modern era (until around 1905 NU played as many as 14 games in a given season, including games against high schools). Yes, NU may have had such recent success due to their scheduling of "less than stellar" teams, but the fact is that the 'Cats have lost plenty of such games in the past.
Such a streak will allow NU to follow its scheduling plan - which is to win the vast majority of nonconference games to aid making bowl trips on a routine basis. Putting wins on the board will help steadily raise the external perception of the NU football program, and hopefully the Wildcats will continue winning such games.
Without further ado, the schedule breakdown:
September 5 vs. Towson (FCS)
NU kicks things off at home against a FCS (formerly called I-AA) team who is by far the worst opponent NU has faced in recent years. The 'Cats have played FCS teams the past three years in a row: Southern Illinois, Northeastern, and New Hampshire (of course, an NU loss). All 3 of those teams have made the FCS playoffs in recent years, while both SIU and UNH have found themselves in the top 10 of the FCS poll in that same period. Meanwhile, Towson has fallen on hard times over the past two seasons going 6-17 and are in the midst of a five game losing streak which led to the hiring of a new head coach, Rob Ambrose, during the offseason. Towson is 0-1 against FBS foes, its only game a 41-13 loss at the hands of Navy last season. This will be its first matchup against a FBS team in another state. Interesting nugget: Towson is in the Colonial Athletic Association - the same conference as previous NU FCS opponents UNH and Northeastern.
While NU has been beaten by an FCS team before, Towson is no UNH, who was ranked #1 at the time and now has a four game winning streak over FBS opponents, and has been a relatively bad FCS team over the past two years. There is the factor of surprise, but Northwestern should be able to do to the Tigers what they've done to SIU and Northeastern over the past 2 years. NU had margins of victory of 26 and 27 points, respectively, in those games. This primarily provides the Wildcats a chance for some live action before the season really gets started and, hopefully, a chance for the offense to begin to get in sync.
September 12 vs. Eastern Michigan
While it may not seem so at first glance, NU moves up a notch in terms of competition for its second game against EMU. Of course, the Eagles are at or close to the bottom of FBS, but they are still an FBS team with two wins over FBS foes last year to show for it, although they were by a combined 7 points. They, too, have a new head coach after firing former NU assistant Jeff Genyk, who sported a 16-42 record over his five year span at Eastern Michigan. Genyk never eclipsed four wins in any given season. The 'Cats should be familiar with their new headmaster, though, Ron English - former Michigan DC under Lloyd Carr, who is looking to turn around EMU and reach a winning record for the first time since 1995 (when they went 6-5).
Even with new leadership, don't expect an immediate turnaround for a school that just hasn't had a lot of talent to work with. But they do have some impact players on offense, particularly QB Andy Schmitt who put up some impressive stats last year and can cause some headaches for defenses with some playmakers on the edges at WR. Fortunately for the Wildcats, NU's strengths match up with theirs. In other words, the EMU offense will have to face NU's strong point, it's defense. As long as the NU D can contain the Eagles' offense, the NU offense should be able to get itself in some kind of gear against a pretty bad EMU D that gave up almost 36 points/game last year. English may be able to help out in that aspect, but NU should still be able to help get its offense comfortable against this unit.
September 19 @ Syracuse
Another team, another new head coach. Syracuse canned the disappointing Greg Robinson in favor of alum Doug Marrone. Marrone comes over from the NFL where he was the Saints' offensive coordinator, who, coincidentally, hired former NU OL coach Ingalls this past offseason. Marrone looks to right the ship which faltered under Robinson (four straight sub-.500 seasons after some moderate success prior to that). There are some playmakers (nose tackle Arthur Jones, WR Mike Williams)and some intriguing players like QB Greg Paulus, who will be starting. Paulus is a transfer from Duke who played basketball for 4 years. He last played competitive football in high school. Overall, though, they hardly have anything to strike fear in opponents.
But, they are a BCS-conference opponent. NU must take them on in the Carrier Dome, so the Wildcats must focus as the level of competition once again increases. Last season, the 'Cats needed a second half spark to get in a position to run away with the game (NU was down 10-9 at halftime), so NU must stay in gear for the entire game to yield a win here. Again, the Orange's defense isn't good by any stretch, so the NU offense will have yet another chance to get itself moving early in the year. Meanwhile, the defense will have to worry about a couple of threats but overall should be able to contain Syracuse to give NU an opportunity to win.
September 26 vs. Minnesota
The Gophers shook things up in the offseason, bringing in a new OC to change their scheme from a pure spread to more of a balanced attack - mostly due to their move to a brand new outdoor stadium beginning this year. Although NU is sporting a 2-game winning streak over Minnesota, both of those came in thrilling, last-minute fashion. Last year's win was due to Smith's INT return-for-TD with inside of 1:00 to play in the 4th quarter, and the 2007 2OT win was thanks to a failed Minnesota two-point conversion try. The Gophers' talent level is rising with Brewster at the helm, and this is easily NU's most difficult game in the first half of the 2009 season.
Minnesota has playmakers on offense: WR Eric Decker, QB Adam Weber, RB Duane Bennett (coming back from an injury), and redshirt freshman QB MarQueis Gray, who may be used in a "slash" role to utilize his skills alongside Weber. The defense experienced a renaissance last year with DC Ted Roof (the guy who beat NU as Duke's head coach back in 2007, as I'm sure you remember) as they went crazy with turnover generation (they were 11th nationally with 31 turnovers gained in 2008). This led to their surprise winning season after going 1-11 in 2007. While they did make large strides last year, they went on a 5-game slide to end the year (starting with NU's last-minute win), and Brewster will be looking to keep them on the upswing and the game in Evanston will be a big test.
Northwestern should be slightly favored, but this game is by no means a gimme and the Gophers will be looking for payback. The D must contain multiple solid offensive weapons with the Northwestern offense will finally be called upon to make something happen. This has the makings of another down-to-the-wire game, and NU will have to pull out all the stops for the first time in 2009 to attain victory.
October 3 @ Purdue
NU then heads to West Lafayette to face another new head coach, Danny Hope, who hopes to begin the process of righting a Purdue team that dipped pretty far in Tiller's final season at the helm. The Boilermaker defense looks to be very good, while the offense is a giant question mark after graduating multi-year starter Curtis Painter (who ended up not being very reliable by the end of his tenure). They, like Minnesota, get a talented RB back from injury, Jaycen Taylor, but there are far more questions than answers on offense. They've lost the inventor of "basketball on grass" to boot.
The Wildcats racked up a large victory against Purdue in '08 thanks to a bunch of turnovers gained, and it'll be up to the D to stymie that offense again in order to secure victory. Don't expect NU's offense to rack up the points against the toughest defense NU will have faced to date; the Wildcats must heavily rely upon their defense. But with things looking dim for Purdue in 2009, Northwestern should be able to take care of business and escape with a win.
October 10 vs. Miami (OH)
The former bane of NU's existence, Miami of Ohio, comes calling for NU's final nonconference contest in mid-October to wrap up the first half of NU's regular season. The 'Cats are 2-6 all-time against Miami (OH), although NU won the most recent meeting 21-3. That was Fitz's first game as NU head coach back in 2007 (where Kafka was coincidentally the starting QB). Miami was expected to be a MAC contender last season, but fell way short of expectations, going 2-10 and leading to the ouster of HC Shane Montgomery. Now NU will be facing its fifth opponent with a new head coach in the first six weeks of the 2009 season. Miami is now led by Michael Haywood.
Things just fell apart for Miami in 2008, and they don't look to be much better this season with many key components lost to graduation. While Northwestern should never look past the Red Hawks, this one looks to be a very winable game for Northwestern before entering a grueling second half of the season. Once again, this game provides an opportunity for the offense to get itself ready for much tougher games where they can no longer exclusively rely upon the defense.
October 17 @ Michigan State
Circle this game as the biggest test for NU and a potential turning point for the Wildcats in 2009. Yes, the Minnesota game is a good barometer for NU, but this game will see if NU has what it takes to move up the conference standings this season. Last year, NU was riding high at 5-0 only to watch that go by the wayside with a 17 point loss to the Spartans after NU essentially gave away a 17-0 lead early on and couldn't consistently stop RB Javon Ringer. While MSU loses Ringer, their top rusher, as well as reliable QB Brian Hoyer, they return a formidable attack, led by their defense.
Mark Dantonio has done a solid job with the program thus far and is now looking to take them to the next level. His defense looks very solid and should be easily in the top half of the conference. The offense has lots of potential, which should look good once the QB battle is resolved. The MSU D fairly easily contained the NU attack last year in Evanston, so NU faces an uphill battle to put points on the board in East Lansing. This one could turn out to be a low scoring affair, although the Spartans easily have the upper hand and should be the big favorite. What makes it interesting, though, is that NU has won two straight in East Lansing. The Wildcats' whole season has been leading up to this, their most challenging game to date. If the NU offense can prove themselves, this could be an entertaining game.
October 24 vs. Indiana
Northwestern returns to Evanston for their only "break" in the second half to face Indiana for homecoming. NU knows that the Hoosiers are dangerous despite only one win over an FBS opponent in 2008 because that opponent was NU. Indiana has lots of talented pieces, but just couldn't put them together last year after just one season removed from their first bowl trip in a decade. On defense they have two excellent pass rushers, DEs Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, along with talented LBs Matt Mayberry and Will Peterson, and solid safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk. On offense QB Ben Chappell will look to repeat the kind of performance he had against Northwestern last year. Again, while the talent is there, Indiana just wasn't able to put the pieces together for most of last year, leaving NU as their only FBS win of the season (and that by only two points).
Of course, Northwestern will have this game circled, and the defense will want revenge for getting burned by a couple errors that led to long TD plays and cost NU the game. Meanwhile, the offense hopefully won't have to face the loss of its two most important players (Bacher and Sutton both went down in last year's game) and will be able to move the ball more effectively. Look for another lower-scoring affair that NU should be able to win as the 'Cats extract revenge for last year's upset.
October 31 vs. Penn State
Now for what is easily the highest-profile game of the season for Northwestern that kicks off the most difficult stretch of the year. Penn State, a top-10 preseason pick and conference front-runner, comes to town in what could be a very important game in the conference race. PSU will likely be undefeated and will be looking forward to their bout with OSU on November 7th, which has been pre-ordained as the Big Ten championship game. Don't think that Joe Paterno will let his team look past anyone. Penn State has had a tough time with NU, going 2-2 over the past 4 meetings with one of those wins being the close comeback over NU in 2005. So, although the Nittany Lions are going to be heavily favored in this matchup, it could be interesting.
The NU D will really have its hands full for the first time in the 2009 season. QB Daryll Clark and RB Evan Royster will be leading the "spread HD" attack once again that led the league in total offense last season. Although there are some minor questions on offense, they have the talent to easily reload. NU's defense will need its best effort to keep the game within reach. Meanwhile, the Northwestern offense will need a spectacular performance to move the ball at all against a national-caliber D, led by returning LB Sean Lee. There will likely be a large buildup to this game which will be played in the late afternoon on Halloween in Evanston. The 'Cats will need PSU to really be looking ahead to pull off a big upset here.
November 7 @ Iowa
The Wildcats return to Iowa City for the second consecutive year in a Big Ten scheduling quirk. Iowa City hasn't been that unkind to NU as they hold a 2-game winning streak there. The 'Cats have won the last 3-of-4 from the Hawkeyes with the only loss coming in Evanston in 2007 in a final-quarter collapse. But, Iowa looks to be a solid team and a dark horse Big Ten contender. They've proven to be a very tough team, especially at home and late in the year. Northwestern has their work cut out for them facing what should be an improved offense and a stingy-as-always defense.
Iowa fans are going to be quite literally rabid about this game.T his could prove to be a huge matchup, even if all eyes will be focusing on the OSU-PSU showdown the same day. If Northwestern wants to make that step up in the standings in 2009, this game is a must-win. Coach Fitz will definitely have the team fired up for this road trip. Meanwhile, Iowa may be in a position to make a run at the conference crown or, at least, secure yet another January 1st bowl berth. Look out for a very physical game here that could come down to the wire, but NU will be hard pressed to extend its Kinnick winning streak to 3.
November 14 @ Illinois
NU continues its tough final stretch with a trip to Illinois, yet another hot pick as an up-and-comer in the Big Ten this season. The Illini have the talent, as demonstrated with that Rose Bowl run in 2007, but they have to consistently put it together, which they failed to do in 2008. Illinois is returning some prolific players on offense on a team that churned out a ton of yards last season but failed to consistently put points on the board. With those offensive stars back (QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn) and some talent coming back on defense (led by LB Martez Wilson), and all of those highly touted Zook recruits in the fold - they will be quite a challenge, especially in Champaign.
Although Northwestern put them away quite easily in 2008, Illinois wasn't playing for much (yes, bowl eligibility, but likely for a trip to Detroit), and this game looks to be a much bigger deal. NU's only loss in the last six meetings came in 2007, but this game has the potential to be one of the most important meetings in recent years (since 1964) since the only time that both teams had a winning record coming into their rivalry game was in 2007. In fact, since 1930, both teams have entered this game with a winning record only eight times.
Although NU has had Illinois' number throughout this decade, it's tough seeing the 'Cats coming away with a win in this tough road game against a talented rival. Again, this game is vital for NU to win if it wants to move up the bowl ladder, but likely having to upset a rival on the road is an uphill battle.
November 21 vs. Wisconsin
For the first time since 1998, NU will conclude its season with a team other than Illinois - this year, Wisconsin, who the Wildcats haven't played since 2006. This series has some very interesting games since NU's rise in the mid-90's, including the 'Cats' last win in the series, a 51-48 offensive showcase in 2005. The Badgers looked like a formidable program when Bielema took over, going 21-5 over his first 2 seasons that included a win in the Capital One Bowl over a tough SEC foe. Last season, though, Wisconsin experienced a slight backslide, ending 7-6, with an embarrassing loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl and a way-too-close win over Cal Poly - San Luis Obispo in their final regular season game (36-35 OT win thanks to a failed extra point by Cal Poly in OT).
Wisconsin looks to have a formidable rushing attack yet again, with RB John Clay looking to lead the way, but the QB spot is up in the air and the defense isn't living up to expectations after Hankwitz's dismissal - and now he'll have his chance to extract his own revenge against his former team. This looks to be an even matchup that may very well factor into the Big Ten bowl positioning as these teams rekindle their rivalry. Northwestern will likely have the edge, though, with a strong Hankwitz-led D, a hopefully-established offense, and home field advantage; NU has won the last 5 consecutive final regular season home games.
Opponent, Likelihood of NU Win (10: sure win - 5: toss-up - 1: sure loss), My Prediction
Towson, 10, W
Eastern Michigan, 9, W
@ Syracuse, 8, W
Minnesota, 6, W
@ Purdue, 7, W
Miami (OH), 9, W
@ Michigan State, 3, L
Indiana, 8, W
Penn State, 1, L
@ Iowa, 2, L
@ Illinois, 3, L
Wisconsin, 5, W
Predicted Record: 8-4 (4-4)
8 wins is a very realistic goal for NU in 2009, especially given the quality of competition in the nonconference schedule and the Big Ten teams that NU does not play (Ohio State and Michigan). With a couple of games being potentially very close (Minnesota, Wisconsin), 7-5 (3-5) is also a significant possibility, which should still send NU to a bowl game (that is hopefully not in Detroit). With an upset or two, the Wildcats could replicate the nine win season from a year ago, but a lot depends on those tough road trips to MSU, Iowa, and Illinois. Anything less than seven wins would be a disappointment, especially with the defense that NU will be fielding this year, and a bowl trip is a must for Fitz to continue building the program.
Bowl Prediction: Insight Bowl
Although eight wins is enough to send a team like Iowa to the Outback Bowl last year, NU will likely be in a tough spot, especially if Iowa and Illinois live up to expectations this year, OSU and PSU are at the top, and Michigan regains bowl eligibility. Another complication is the fact that the Big Ten may get only one BCS bowl bid because of the public backlash against the conference for its underwhelming performance in recent bowl games. The Champs Sports Bowl will select ahead of the Alamo Bowl this year, and it would be difficult seeing the Alamo selecting NU for a second consecutive year unless their hand is forced by NU being the final Big Ten team available with a winning record (who must be selected before teams with .500 records). This would send NU to the Insight, not a bad game (although it's unfortunately televised on the NFL Network), and would be a boon to the Northwestern football program as this would be only the second time in school history to make back-to-back bowl games.