Commentary: Northwestern's 2007 Schedule and Still-too-early Prediction
by Jonathan Hodges

Northwestern's 2007 schedule is one of the easiest that the 'Cats have faced over the past decade without even considering the 7 home dates for NU - the most in a long time. NU will face I-AA Northeastern (who has not been very good, unlike New Hampshire who the 'Cats faced and lost to in 2006), Nevada, Duke (who is on a 20 game losing streak), and Eastern Michigan in the non-Big Ten games. Of course having an
easy (non-conference) schedule going into the season does not equal wins as many Wildcat fans have learned in recent years (think Miami (OH) in 1995, Wake Forest in 1996 and 1997, Bowling Green in 2001,
Hawaii in 2004, and the list continues). Even within the Big Ten this year, the 'Cats miss Wisconsin and Penn State, two of the three front-runners for the conference title going into the season (the other being Michigan, which NU faces at home).
Starting off the season, NU has 3 consecutive home games against non-conference foes - and the only one worth blinking at is Nevada (who beat NU 31-21 thanks to a series of NU gaffes including 5 turnovers). Northeastern is a mediocre to bad I-AA team who is nothing like UNH from 2006 who came into the game ranked at the top of their sub-division. Nevada, while a solid team who has been to bowls the past couple of years, has lost some key players (including the cornerback who grabbed the interception and returned it for a touchdown that sealed last year's game) meanwhile the 'Cats have made vast improvements on offense and defense and will no doubt be hungry for revenge. Add to that the fact that Northwestern will be the host and, despite being a tough game, NU should be the favored team or at least close to it. Finally, Duke comes to town, and they are currently riding a Div. I-A leading 20 game losing streak into the season - and things really don't look like they are turning around quickly down there. Nevada will provide the first test of the season, but those three games are predicted wins for the 'Cats. What comes up next, though, could be a daunting task for NU.
After a relatively easy start to the season, NU next travels to Columbus to face OSU in both teams' first Big Ten action. OSU is definitely re-tooling on offense after losing some key contributors to their run last year, but is a usual strong team who is tough to play - especially in their house. If the 'Cats were to go for an upset and win their first game in the 'shoe since 1971, this would be it as OSU has some new players to break in and it is still quite early in the season. That would be a tall order for NU, though, as there are plenty of issues to be resolved on this end, like keeping the offense chugging at a decent pace and figuring out special teams. Following this game, NU comes home to face Michigan - one of the front runners going into the 2007 season - not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire nation. The offense will be formidable with they key players still in place, and the defense shouldn't be a pushover despite losing key players from the force that was the 2006 defense. Barring a miracle (which has happened before, mind you) I don't see Northwestern being able to topple the Wolverines (despite my hatred of all things maize and blue), let alone topple both of the Big Ten traditional powers in consecutive weeks. Much of the hope of the 2007 season lies in the following part of the schedule.
NU then travels to Michigan State - the team that managed the largest comeback in I-A history over NU last year (no thanks to injuries to Roach and Rees for the 'Cats) - but who had an abysmal 2006 season (mustering no Big Ten wins outside of the NU game) and has a new coach and relatively unknown ability for this season. This could be a key game for NU - a winnable road game against another team that should end up in the middle of the pack trying to reach a bowl game. I predict a Wildcat victory, although this game is more of a toss-up than the non-conference games. Following that game Northwestern comes back to Evanston for homecoming to play Minnesota - another team with a brand new coach (as well as a former NU OC, Dunbar). This is a game NU could and should win - especially in front of a home crowd against a team who will be learning a new offensive system and a team that has question marks going into the year. In my opinion, this is also the turning point of the season - a Wildcat victory here would mean 5-6 wins going into the second part of the season, while a loss would mean struggling to reach bowl eligibility. I am going to predict a win here to propel NU into the second half of the year.
NU then takes a break from the Big Ten and plays Eastern Michigan, a team NU played way too close last year. This year EMU hasn't changed much while NU (hopefully) improved greatly. Look for a win here. Following that little breather (which will, hopefully, yield the 'Cats at least a 3-1 or possibly a 4-0 non-conference schedule), NU faces a couple of tough games at Purdue and at home against Iowa. Purdue's offense will be daunting as usual while their defense remains suspect.  The key will be taking advantage of their defense, something NU was not able to do last year (many thanks to the puzzling play calling of McGee and the QB carousel). While NU has a good shot in this game, I don't see them coming away with the win - especially on the road. Then NU comes home to face Iowa, a team they beat handily last year and hold a 2 game win streak against. Iowa has almost no choice to improve over last year - when they limped to a bowl berth and struggled during the mid-season stretch. I want to see the 'Cats rack
up a 3 game streak against the Hawkeyes, but I think NU will pick up a loss somewhere else, and this will be it.
NU then plays its final home game against Indiana, who the 'Cats have not faced since 2004 (when they needed 2OT to grab the win). Indiana also has a new coach after their unfortunate off-season loss (not unlike NU's last year), and while things have been looking up for the Hoosiers, they still have many holes - especially on defense. Northwestern should win this game - and basically must win to stay in the mid-tier bowl contention crowd. Finally, NU heads to Champaign to face Illinois in the final game of the regular season. At this point, I have predicted a 7-4 record for Northwestern, good enough to put them in a decent bowl game. NU is riding a 4 year win streak over their rivals, and Illinois will supposedly be competitive this year after looking dismal ever since taking the 2001 Big Ten crown. While I don't believe all the hype, I don't see NU's streak over Illinois lasting forever (unfortunately) and I'll mark this one as a loss.
This leaves Northwestern with a 7-5 (3-5) mark for the 2007 season and will hopefully put them in a non-Detroit bowl (Phoenix or Orlando possibly?), although there are still question marks behind that prediction. The key "swing" games that could go either way would be: Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois. Those games will decide if NU will be fighting to go to Detroit or cruising into Orlando or better. The reach games would include Iowa and Purdue, while the major upsets would be wins over Michigan or OSU. A minimum win mark should be 6 games, I am comfortable with prediction 7 wins, and 8 games would be more of a reach, but still quite possible. 9 or more wins would require some upsets and is never out of the realm of possibility but I don't know if all of the pieces are in place and with enough experience to make that happen in 2007.
A lot can happen over the course of the pre-season and early season, so look for my individual pre-game analysis and predictions each week which will take into consideration the ebb and flow of the year. I'll stand by my prediction for this year, though, as I was reasonably close with my 5-6 prediction last season. Here is a summary:
Opponent, NU's position in the game, (prediction)
vs. Northeastern, gimme, (W)
vs. Nevada, slight advantage, (W)
vs. Duke, should-win, (W)
at Ohio State, underdog, (L)
vs. Michigan, large underdog, (L)
at Michigan State, toss-up, (W)
vs. Minnesota, slight advantage, (W)
at Eastern Michigan, should-win, (W)
at Purdue, disadvantage, (L)
vs. Iowa, disadvantage, (L)
vs. Indiana, advantage, (W)
at Illinois, slight disadvantage, (L)
Predicted: 7-5 (3-5 Big Ten), Insight or Champs Sports Bowl

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

jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.