The defending Big Ten West champions have a tough conference slate to navigate
The 2018 college football season was arguably the most successful in the history of the Northwestern Wildcats football program. In 2019, the defending Big Ten West champions are looking for more. They hope to win the Big Ten Championship Game, they're aiming for a New Year's Six bowl, and perhaps a College Football Playoff bid. After last season, there is nowhere to go but up for Pat Fitzgerald's unit.
Fitzgerald turned down overtures from the NFL's Green Bay Packers during the offseason and affirmed his loyalty to Northwestern. And now that spring practices have concluded, his full focus is on replacing the departed talent from last year, staying ahead of the competition, and taking this program to new heights.
The road back to Indianapolis will not be easy as the Wildcats have home games against Michigan State and Ohio State, they'll hit the road to play division rivals Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Illinois, and have a somewhat scattered non-conference schedule. Overall, Northwestern will face seven teams who went to bowl games last season and posted a combined record of 59-33 along the way.
Northwestern Wildcats 2019 Schedule
Byes: Week 2, Week 7
Week 1 — Aug. 31 at Stanford (Stanford, Calif.)
The Wildcats opened the 2015 campaign at home against the Cardinal (a win that was considered an upset by many) and now Northwestern is returning the favor by heading to the Bay Area. Under Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are 3-1 against the Pac-12 including December's Holiday Bowl win. While a kickoff time hasn't been set for this game yet, it wouldn't surprise me if it ends up being one of this year's "Pac-12 After Dark" telecasts.
Week 3 — Sept. 14 vs. UNLV (Evanston, Ill.)
The Wildcats are 2-0 all-time against the Rebels with the last meeting occurring back in 2001. Fitzgerald is 2-0 lifetime against the Mountain West Conference (wins over Nevada in 2007 and '17) but this will be the first time he's coached against UNLV. This will be the first trip to Illinois for the Rebels since 2015 when they lost at Northern Illinois. UNLV has played two other Big Ten teams in the last four years, losing to both Michigan (2015) and Ohio State (2017) by a combined 54 points. The Wildcats could very well be 2-0 after this contest.
Week 4 — Sept. 21 vs Michigan State (Evanston, Ill.)
Northwestern has won three straight over the Spartans. The difference for this season, however, is that Clayton Thorson is no longer NU's starting quarterback. In those three games against Michigan State, Thorson was at his best, throwing for 966 yards and eight touchdowns. The Wildcats will be breaking in a new quarterback this season, and it would be unrealistic to expect those same type of numbers against Michigan State right away.
Week 5 — Sept. 28 at Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.)
The Wildcats are just 3-6 against the Badgers on Fitzgerald's watch but they have split the last four meetings. The "Cardiac Cats" last won in Camp Randall Stadium back in 2015, but rest assured that the Badgers' running game headlined by Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor will give Northwestern all it can handle, although Northwestern has done a good job keeping him in check (126 yards, 2 TDs in two games). Expect another classic encounter between the past two Big Ten West champs.
Week 6 — Oct. 5 at Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb.)
Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, the Cornhuskers have gone 4-4 against Northwestern but it's been quite a competitive series. Only two of the matchups have been decided by double digits with the average margin of victory being just four points. The Cornhuskers haven't had a winning season since 2016, but head Scott Frost seems to have his program pointing in the right direction. Expect this year's meeting with Northwestern to be another memorable one.
Week 8 — Oct. 18 vs. Ohio State (Evanston, Ill.)
Perhaps the bye week will be a good thing as this will be a highly anticipated rematch of last year's Big Ten title game. The Wildcats haven't defeated the Buckeyes since 2004 (lost seven straight) but they have given them a fight in each of the past three meetings. Their prime-time meeting at Ryan Field in 2013 put Northwestern football on the map, and they almost pulled off the upset in Columbus three years later. In this past season's Big Ten Championship Game, Northwestern only trailed by a touchdown at the end of the first quarter before Ohio State pulled away. With OSU entering this season with both a new head coach and a new quarterback, this year's matchup won't be as cut and dry as the previous ones.
Week 9 — Oct. 26 vs. Iowa (Evanston, Ill.)
The Wildcats have won three in a row against the Hawkeyes with last year's victory in Iowa City clinching the Big Ten West title. The key to victory for Northwestern each time was running the ball with success. Whether it was Justin Jackson, John Moten IV, Clayton Thorson, Isaiah Bowser or Chad Hanaoka, NU has piled up 529 rushing yards and five touchdowns in those three wins over Iowa. Since dropping 40 points on the Wildcats in their last victory back in 2015, the Hawkeyes have been held just 10 points in each of the last two meetings. Northwestern's combination of a strong running game and a stout defense could help them make it four in a row against Iowa.
Week 10 — Nov. 2 at Indiana (Bloomington, Ind.)
Although these programs haven't played each other since 2016, and the Wildcats haven't visited Bloomington since '11, Fitzgerald has had some of his best success against the Hoosiers. Fitzgerald's teams are 6-1 against Indiana, winning the last three meetings by a total of 46 points, and the Hoosiers have managed just three winning seasons during the Fitzgerald era. Asking Indiana to win its first game against Northwestern since 2008, even at home, is a tall task.
Week 11 — Nov. 9 vs. Purdue (Evanston, Ill.)
Last year's victory in West Lafayette was the fifth straight for the Wildcats over Purdue. But under Jeff Brohm the Boilermakers have shown steady improvement. Last year, Northwestern needed the since-retired Jeremy Larkin to drain nearly eight minutes of clock in order to stave off Purdue's second-half rally in an eventual 31-27 season-opening win. That should be an indicator of how competitive this year's meeting could be.
Week 12 — Nov. 16 vs. UMass (Evanston, Ill.)
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools. The Minutemen are 0-4 all-time against the Big Ten, and they've yet to post a winning season since moving up to the FBS back in 2012.
Week 13 — Nov. 23 vs. Minnesota (Evanston, Ill.)
The Wildcats have won three of the last four meetings but the Golden Gophers have some momentum on their side as they finished last season by winning four of their final six games. Minnesota fans hope that late-season surge is a sign of things to come as P.J. Fleck enters his third season in charge.
Week 14 — Nov. 30 at Illinois (Champaign, Ill.)
Since losing to the Fighting Illini in 2014, the Wildcats have taken the last four games in this in-state rivalry, outscoring Illinois 132-58 along the way. Fitzgerald is 9-4 against Northwestern's archrival, while Illinois has gone through four head coaches during his tenure. The Illini have some optimism heading into this season, but regaining the advantage in the state's biggest rivalry will be easier said than done.
— 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.