Even though the coronavirus pandemic remains an ongoing issue, some parts of college football are hoping to forge ahead for 2020. That is the case with the Big Ten, which decided that all fall sports for the 2020-21 school year will be limited to conference-only matchups. This is being done in order to limit travel as a way to reduce the risk of athletes contracting COVID-19. As a result, Northwestern's original schedule has been reduced.
If and when the Wildcats do take the field, they'll be slightly rebuilding with a new offensive coordinator calling the plays and a new quarterback under center. They will, however, have a strong veteran defense to lean on. Even with just Big Ten opposition on the horizon, NU will still have to navigate a tough slate of games in order to post its first winning season since 2018. Here is a breakdown of the Wildcats schedule ranked from the easiest games to the toughest.
9. Oct. 17 vs. Maryland
The Wildcats won the first-ever meeting with the Terrapins back in 2017, and Maryland is 23-86-1 all-time against Big Ten opposition. This includes games from when Maryland was an ACC member.
8. Nov. 28 vs. Illinois
The Wildcats have won five in a row against the archrival Fighting Illini and have prevailed in seven of the last nine meetings overall. The most impressive victory during this streak has to be last year's upset win in Champaign. The Wildcats limped into the game with just two wins and had lost eight of their last nine. But Pat Fitzgerald's team dug down deep, and not only did they defeat the favored Illini by 19 points, but they did so with third- and fourth-string players at just about every position due to numerous injuries. A win this year would make it six consecutive Ws for NU, which would be a school record in the series.
7. Oct. 31 at Purdue
Northwestern will head into this Holloween matchup with the Boilermakers with momentum on their side. The Cats have gone 5-1 in their last six visits to Ross-Ade Stadium and have a 7-2 record in the last nine overall series meetings. Purdue still owns a 51-32-1 all-time record, but Northwestern is looking to change the course of this Big Ten rivalry.
6. Oct. 3 vs. Nebraska
The Huskers will present the first division challenge as the Wildcats look to take the Big Ten West for the first time since 2018. Nebraska owns an 8-5 series lead over Northwestern, but NU has taken three of the last five games. Scott Frost's team is expected to finally start turning the rebuilding corner in 2020. And when you combine that with the recent history between these teams, this year's matchup will be another classic.
5. Nov. 21 at Minnesota
Both teams have evenly split the last eight encounters. But the Golden Gophers, coming off their best season in school history (11 wins and a top-10 ranking in 2019), are contenders for the Big Ten West crown. The Gophers also return a fair amount of talent.
4. Oct. 24 at Iowa
All roads to the top of the Big Ten west eventually go through Iowa City. And that'll be the case again this season when the Wildcats travel to take on the Hawkeyes. When NU won at Kinnick Stadium two years ago, it clinched their trip to the Big Ten Championship game. But last year in Evanston, Iowa pitched a 20-0 shutout. The Hawkeyes come into this game riding the wave of their big Holiday Bowl victory over Southern California to close out the 2019 campaign.
3. Nov. 7 vs. Wisconsin
Although this game will no longer be played at Wrigley Field, the importance of this game remains. Wisconsin easily handled a shorthanded Wildcats team in Madison last year, which served as payback for the Wildcats upset of the Badgers at Ryan Field in 2018. The Badgers will have to replace running back Jonathan Taylor, but they'll be looking to take out their offseason frustrations on their opposition in 2020. Wisconsin ended last season on a two-game skid in which it came up short in both the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.
2. Sept. 5 at Michigan State
After three straight Northwestern wins from 2016 to '18, MSU broke the streak with a vengeance last year, as the Spartans dominated NU on both sides of the ball in a 31-10 statement victory. So now the Cats are tasked with bouncing back by winning their third straight game at Spartan Stadium on opening day. Doing so would be another school record for Fitzgerald's team, but since 2017, the Spartans have a 14-6 home record, and they'll make every effort to keep that from happening.
1. Sept. 26 at Penn State
There are a variety of reasons why this will be Northwestern's most difficult game of the season. For starters, the Wildcats have only beaten the Nittany Lions five times in school history (recently posted back-to-back wins in 2014 and '15). They're also 2-6 all-time at Beaver Stadium, Penn State has scored 30 or more points against NU in 14 of their 19 all-time meetings, and the Nittany Lions won all seven of last year's home games by a combined score of 265-91. Not to mention the fact that PSU is coming off a 2019 campaign in which they won 11-games, missed out on the Big Ten East title by just one game, easily handled Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, and return all of last year's top players. Northwestern will have their hands full in Happy Valley.
— 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.