The Wildcats have the tough task of opening the season on the road at Penn State and finishing it at home against Michigan
Earlier this summer, the Big Ten announced that its member teams — including the Northwestern Wildcats — will be limited to conference-only schedules in 2020. All non-conference games have been eliminated, which was done in order to limit travel and keep all teams on a similar safety regimen to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
The conference finally revealed its modified, 10-game schedule for all 14 teams on Aug. 5. Each team will have five home games and five road games, and Michigan was added to the Wildcats' schedule as its 10th opponent.
So NU will still have a tough road ahead as the Wildcats look to get back to a bowl game. Whether or not this season gets underway remains to be seen, as the Big Ten still has some coronavirus-related logistics to work through. But here are both the pros and cons of the Cardiac Cats' new schedule for the '20 season.
1. Extra bye week
All Big Ten teams will have two bye weeks this season, and Northwestern will be idle on Oct. 10, and Nov. 7. As an added bonus, the Big Ten will not play any games on Thanksgiving weekend. In years past the Big Ten would normally finish its schedule in early November. But with the expansion of the FBS schedule to 12 games per team, and with the addition of the Big Ten Championship Game in 2011, that had gone by the wayside.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is definitely happy about that, as he's made it known in the past that he'd rather his team have the ability to be home with their families for the holiday. Plus, having an extra week off can help heal injuries and allow the team to quarantine if needed. This year's Big Ten title game is currently scheduled for Dec. 5, but that is subject to change.
2. Favorable home schedule
The Wildcats have a pretty solid chance of going 4-1 at home this season. Their first home game (Sept. 12) comes against Wisconsin, which fell to the Wildcats in its last trip to Evanston in 2018. Two weeks later (Sept. 26), they'll take on a Maryland team that has never defeated Northwestern. The Wildcats will have an interesting set of back-to-back home games in October. It starts with the latest chapter with their archrivals from Ilinois (Oct. 17).
Normally this game is played at seasons end, but it was moved up because of the modified schedule. But Northwestern has won five straight against the Fighting Illini, and a sixth consecutive win would set a new record in the head-to-head series. The following week (Oct. 24), the Wildcats will take on a Nebraska team that has given them fits since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. But NU has the advantage as they've won two of the last three matchups. Northwestern's final home game (Nov. 21) will be a difficult one against Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines.
3. All games are on Saturday
This is also a big win for Fitzgerald. His team played two Friday night games in 2019, and he objected to the scheduling of those games. Fitzgerald is a traditionalist who prefers to play on Saturday's over any other day of the week.
1. The Big Ten East Gauntlet
In addition to Michigan and Maryland, the Wildcats will open the season at Penn State (Sept. 5), then travel to Michigan State two weeks later (Sept. 19). Those teams posted a combined 30-21 record last year, with the Nittany Lions, Wolverines, and Spartans all reaching bowl games. On top of that, Northwestern hasn't won at Penn State since 2014. Then they have the daunting task of trying to win their third straight game in East Lansing against the Spartans. Something that has never been done in team history.
Maryland should be the easiest game on this portion of the schedule. But when they host Michigan in their regular-season finale, they'll be taking on a program that they haven't beaten since 2008.
2. Difficult road schedule
The flip side of an easy home schedule Is a tough road slate. In addition to their travels to MSU and Happy Valley, the Cats will also travel to Iowa (Oct. 3), Purdue (Oct. 31), and Minnesota (Nov. 14). All five teams collectively went 26-9 on their home fields in '19. Northwestern, however, does have a little history on its side as the Wildcats triumphed in their last trips to West Lafayette, Iowa City, and Minneapolis when they won the Big Ten West in 2018.
3. Tough midseason divisional stretch
After hosting Maryland, the Wildcats will play five straight Big Ten West opponents (Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota) to wrap up their divisional commitments. This will be the most important stretch for Northwestern when it comes to their hopes of getting back to the championship game in Indianapolis.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.