Commentary: The Schedule
by Jonathan Hodges

College football is a rather unique sport in that teams are compared nationally against 119 others despite being in 11 different conferences, playing completely different (and unbalanced) schedules, and only about half of those teams having guaranteed access to the richest postseason prizes.  Given that, let's have a look at Northwestern's football schedule for the 2010 regular season.

Unlike the last couple of seasons, when a non-conference game was placed during an "open" week in the middle of the Big Ten schedule, all of Northwestern's non-conference games are in September before Big Ten play begins.  Although no game is a gimme, as any NU fan knows, the non-conference slate is one of the easiest in the nation.  And in conference play, Northwestern closes out this two-year cycle by once again missing Ohio State and Michigan, which is somewhat of a boon given that OSU is expected to win the league title after last season's Rose Bowl victory.

I will save my full preview and predictions for August, but let's peruse the schedule now to have an idea of what to expect.

September 4 @ Vanderbilt

Has Northwestern gone and joined the SEC?  This will be NU's second consecutive game against an SEC opponent (after facing Auburn in the Outback Bowl to close out last season), and it will be one of (at least) three trips south of the Mason-Dixon line for the 'Cats in 2010.  Vanderbilt went just 2-10 last season, failing to beat an in-conference opponent and generally looking bad doing so.  To seemingly pile it on, they lost their well-liked head coach Bobby Johnson just seven weeks before the regular season is set to kick off, forcing long-time assistant Robbie Caldwell to the helm.  Although a road game against a BCS conference opponent (no matter how bad they may be) always seems to be a trap game for NU, all signs point to a Wildcat victory in Nashville.

September 11 vs. Illinois State

NU will face an in-state opponent for their annual I-AA/FCS game, this season the Redbirds from Normal.  Last year, ISU went 6-5 and were destroyed by a relatively bad Illinois team, 45-17, in Champaign.  Although not nearly as feeble as last year's FCS opponent Towson, ISU presents a good opportunity for Northwestern to pad their win total and prepare for the upcoming Big Ten slate at home.

September 18 @ Rice

If you wanted to find a I-A/FBS team actually worse than Vanderbilt, look no further than Rice, the only FBS team to lose to Vandy last year.  The Owls went 2-10 last year, and although they seemed to be building momentum by winning two straight in November, they finished the season off with an implosion by giving up 73 points to Houston in an embarrassing loss to their cross-town rivals.  Things aren't expected to get much better this year, and they only thing they have going for them against the 'Cats may be the muggy Houston weather.

September 25 vs. Central Michigan

Central Michigan finished last season ranked in the Top 25 (23 in the AP, 24 in the Coaches), but this year's team will be much different than that squad thanks to the fact that CMU lost both their all-conference QB Dan LeFevour to graduation and their head coach Butch Jones to Cincinnati (to follow in the steps of his predecessor, Brian Kelly).  They also lose their top WRs and key components of the defense, meaning they will be in full rebuilding mode.  But Northwestern must be careful not to look ahead at the looming Big Ten opponents as MAC teams never go away quietly (see last year's three point victory over a horrible Eastern Michigan squad that ended up going winless in 2009).

October 2 @ Minnesota

Northwestern will make its first trip to TCF Bank Stadium as they try to avenge last year's loss to the Gophers.  Unfortunately, this game is early in the season when Minnesota always seems to play better.  The Gophers lost some key components on both sides of the ball and many have them picked near the bottom of the conference, but Big Ten road games are never easy and, as NU fans know, crazy things can and do happen in Northwestern-Minnesota games.  This game kicks off the first of three key games for NU that could honestly go either way.

October 9 vs. Purdue

In the first true night game since 2007, the 'Cats will face an up-and-coming Boilermakers squad that will be looking to avenge two consecutive losses to NU.  Although it won't be a high profile game nationally, this could be a very competitive game and will go a long way in determining bowl eligibility and/or positioning.  Northwestern may be looking at a chance to finish off the first half of the season with a very good record (plausibly undefeated) before the mid-season bye week.

October 23 vs. Michigan State

The 'Cats face another tough and evenly-matched Big Ten opponent as MSU comes in for homecoming later in October.  This part of the schedule is when every game matters for the postseason, and Michigan State will be looking to build their program back up after a bit of a down season last year (6-7 with a loss in the Alamo Bowl) that featured numerous player dismissals from the team.  Like the Purdue game, this may fly under the radar, but will be a very competitive contest.

October 30 @ Indiana

NU was upset by a relatively weak Indiana squad two years ago in Bloomington and last year needed the largest comeback in school history to beat IU at home, so this game looks to be very interesting even if NU comes in as the expected favorite.  The Hoosiers will be up for this game and the 'Cats will desperately need a victory going into some very difficult November contests, so look for a tough Big Ten battle that could go either way.

November 6 @ Penn State

Although PSU is in a bit of rebuilding mode after losing key components on both sides of the ball, it's not like they will fall that far as they have plenty of top-flight recruits to insert into the lineup.  The storyline of this game will be NU QB Dan Persa's return to his home state of Pennsylvania where he set all kinds of high school records.  Northwestern may technically have a shot in this game, but this is easily one of the two toughest matchups of the 2010 slate for the 'Cats and it will be in one of the nation's toughest places to play to boot.

November 13 vs. Iowa

If you want to see a grudge match, look no further.  Northwestern has beaten the Hawkeyes in two consecutive seasons (both in Iowa City), knocking their top offensive player out with injury in both contests.  Iowa fans are, to say it mildly, unhappy that NU has won four of the last five in this series, and they'll be bringing a rather solid team into Evanston looking for revenge.  But don't expect Fitz to concede, as he always has this game circled on the calendar.  This is also the 'Cats' final true home game of the season, so it will be quite a way to cap off this year's games at Ryan Field.

November 20 vs. Illinois (at Wrigley Field)

The Wrigley Field game.  This will definitely be a fun and unique experience for everyone involved and hopefully the 'Cats can make it a game to remember as they face an Illinois squad that may be fighting for its coach's job.  Although the Illini have talent on both sides of the ball, they have just failed to capitalize on that in recent years except for one seemingly fluke season.  This game will be very important for Northwestern's bowl hopes and will be a chance for NU to show the Chicago area that they are worth watching.

November 27 @ Wisconsin

The season concludes on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a tough road game in Madison, which presents one of the two toughest games for NU this coming season.  The Badgers may very well be in the hunt for at least a share of the Big Ten title, while NU may be looking to repeat what they did last season when a season-ending upset of Wisconsin propelled them to a January 1 bowl game.  The 'Cats will be facing an uphill battle in this contest, but never count NU out.


Overall, the fact is that Northwestern has a very amenable schedule as the 'Cats seek their third consecutive bowl berth for the first time in school history.  The worst-case scenario for NU likely features a 6-6 record, with seven or eight wins being more likely.  If things fall right and the 'Cats can get on a roll, nine or more wins is conceivable.  This season should be rather interesting as Coach Fitz works to continue establishing his legacy as one of the great coaches in Northwestern history.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.