Commentary: Nonconference Nightmares
by Jonathan Hodges

If you are a 'Cats fan or have followed Northwestern football any time recently (within the past 40 years or so), you realize that Northwestern has not had the best luck in its nonconference games, even when NU has a strong team and contends within the Big Ten.  The stat that most readily shows this is the fact that NU has not won all of its nonconference games since 1963.  (Coincidentally, or not, that happens to be the last year that Ara Parseghian coached at Northwestern before leaving for Notre Dame - curse of Ara, anyone?)  More specifically, even during recent Big Ten title seasons in 1995, 1996, and 2000, NU lost at least one nonconference game: to Miami (OH), Wake Forest, and TCU, respectively.  And other recent seasons include somewhat embarassing losses to what one may consider to be "inferior" opponents, such as last year's loss to Duke, the loss to New Hampshire two years ago (well that one was more like a thwomping), or the 2001 loss to Bowling Green after they made a 2 point conversion in the closing minute of the

Every year, NU fans think to themselves, well, can NU finally win all of its non Big Ten games this year?  Especially recently, winning all of those games is probably the difference between a bowl and staying at home - as the 'Cats learned all too well last year going 3-1 in the nonconference slate and ending up at 6-6 overall which left NU at home come bowl time (not to say that the loss to Duke was the only reason - NU did blow 3 4th quarter leads in the Big Ten slate, but it is disconcerting nonetheless).  In 2008, the nonconference slate of Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois, and Ohio most definitely begs the question of if NU can go undefeated through that slate (3 of those games are at home); none of those teams are expected to do well this season and NU should have the edge in all of them (of course NU fans and anyone following college football in 2007 knows never to pencil anything in).

For most of the span, until this decade (except for the the year of the Pigskin Classic game against Oklahoma in 1997), NU played 3 or fewer nonconference games per season (in 1963, NU went 2-0 in nonconference play), although now with the advent of the 12 game schedule NU has played 4 nonconference games (NU has played 4 nonconference games in a season 6 years in that 43 year span).  And the level of competition varied, with mostly BCS conference foes (or at least those who are now in BCS conferences) until the late 1980s, after which NU has scheduled many dates with non-BCS conference opponents.  Also, NU has gone through many coaches during that span (Agase, Pont, Venturi, Green, Peay, Barnett, Walker, and Fitz), and many more players, yet the stigma remains.

Here are some stats to show how things went for NU (note that bowl games are not counted as nonconference games for these stats):

1964 - 2007 (43 years, 126 nonconference games)

W-L-T: 44-80-2 (0.349 winning rate)

Number of seasons with the following nonconference wins:
0: 15
1: 13
2: 14
3: 1

Number of seasons with the following nonconference losses:
3: 9
2: 18
1: 17

Average nonconference wins/season: 1.02
Average nonconference losses/season: 1.86

While the results show that NU has indeed struggled during this time span (which includes basically all of the "Dark Ages" and all of "The Streak"), the numbers aren't that disheartening.  In fact, in 2007 NU won the most nonconference games in school history with 3.  Also, NU has won at least one nonconference game each season since 1992.  In the time span starting in 1995 and continuing to 2007 (the "Modern Era" in NU football, if you will) has NU with a 26-19 (0.578) record and at least 2 wins in every season but one (2004), for an average of exactly 2 nonconference wins/season.

But, the fact remains that Northwestern just can't get over that "hump" of winning all of its nonconference games.  And that brings up the question of why hasn't NU won all of its nonconference games: given the wide range of competition and the fact that Northwestern has performed very well within the conference in some of these years (including going undefeated in the Big Ten in 1995).  I will explore some possibilities below.

Talent Level

The fact is that over the time span in question, NU didn't have the highest level of talent which in Big Ten play meant a large gap between the 'Cats and their opponent.  Against nonconference foes, especially of the non-BCS variety, one would think that there would be more of a chance.  But as some have noted, non-BCS teams typically have starters who could probably be playing for many BCS conference teams.  The issue is that the depth of talent enjoyed by many BCS conference teams just isn't there.  Therefore, for one game, especially early in the season when nonconference games typically fall - meaning fewer injuries and less fatigue, it is possible that the talent level of NU's opponent may be equal or greater even if they would usually be considered a "lesser" opponent.

Anticipation for the Game

For non-BCS conference teams, it is almost guaranteed that they look forward to games against BCS opponents in order to prove themselves, whether they consciously think about it or not.  Meanwhile, the BCS team may think about it as a "gimme" or at the very least not equivalent to an in-conference game.  NU may very well have suffered this on occasion - specifically the loss to Miami (OH) in 1995 after beating Notre Dame and looking forward to a Big Ten run.  This difference in anticipation/excitement level for the game may tilt even more in favor of the "underdog" non-BCS foe.

Level of Competition

Of course, NU has played some pretty tough nonconference foes over that time span; recently that includes Arizona State in 2004-2005 and others before that (TCU in 2000 was pretty good with Heisman Trophy winner Tomlinson in their backfield).  Yes, many were from weaker conferences, but there were quite a few who were peers or superior to NU in terms of talent.  The diffculty of schedule has waned in recent years, though, especially with the recent philosophy of using "easier" oppoents to help get to the required level of wins to be bowl eligible.  Given the fact that schedules are made years in advance, though, there is always the possiblity of a future opponent being better/worse than anticipated.  But, moving forward NU seems to have a trend of playing one FCS/I-AA team, two non-BCS conference teams, and one lower-tier BCS conference team (i.e. Stanford, Vanderbilt) each season - putting NU in a better position than playing mostly BCS conference foes.

Attendance (Home Games)

Since nonconference games typically come early in the year, and NU tries to pull in more home games (the strategy going forward is to get 7 home games), so therefore there are a lot of home games early in the year (in early September).  Northwestern follows the quarter system in terms of its academic calendar, which means the fall quarter (when undergraduates arrive on campus) doesn't begin until late September.  This means that there are few, if any, undergraduate students in attendance at most nonconference games.  Compounding this issue, a good number of season ticket holders prefer Big Ten competition and don't go to nonconference games.  "Casual fans" who buy single game tickets obviously prefer more interesting competition and therefore typically stay away from nonconference games.  And visiting fans typically don't attend in droves for nonconference games due to proximity and interest.   Also, NU typically has to prove itself on the field to be considered "good" (very few positive preseason predictions) So, overall, that means a smaller crowd for nonconference games.  This smaller crowd means less excitement during the game and less support for the team, at least from a "12th man" standpoint.  This may also affect NU's excitement level for the game by bringing it down further - see above about not anticipating nonconference games as much.  Anecdotally, I can tell you that the energy level displayed by NU against New Hampshire in 2006 was very lackluster - and it's not like there were many NU fans there to help.

Luck (i.e. The Curse of Ara)

As mentioned earlier, the last year that NU had an undefeated nonconference schedule was also Ara Parseghian's final season as head coach of Northwestern before leaving to coach Notre Dame.  The timing seems coincidental, but this also signaled a begin of the decline of NU football into the "Dark Ages" which really began in the mid 1970's and continued until the 1995 revival under Barnett.  Despite NU's success since 1995, as noted above, the 'Cats have still lost at least one nonconference game every season since then.  And many have been close losses in strage situations (i.e. the aforementioned Bowling Green loss, also the 2004 TCU game where NU missed 5 out of 6 FGs and lost in 2 OT, including one that would have one the game at the end of regulation and one that would have won the game in OT) and/or to teams that could be considered "inferior."

In some of my previous writings I have mentioned the "NUMB Curse" which was a streak of away games from 1997-2005 that NU lost when NUMB was in attendance (NUMB travels to one away game a year).  Now, we all know that this has little to do with the actual result of the games, but it's a fact nonetheless.

In conclusion, one can see NU's track record in nonconference play since 1963 isn't good (at least one loss per season), but the possibility exists for Northwestern to put this "curse" behind them in 2008; 2007 featured the most nonconference wins since 1963 (actually, prior to 1963 since that year's nonconference record was 2-0), and the 2008 nonconference slate is favorable and the 'Cats have the experience and talent to put themselves in a favorable position.  On September 20th after NU's 2008 nonconference games are finished, hopefully this streak can be put to bed.

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.