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Northwestern Football: Wildcats' 2020 Schedule Analysis

Northwestern Football: Wildcats' 2020 Schedule Analysis

Northwestern Football: Wildcats' 2020 Schedule Analysis

To say that the Northwestern Wildcats' 2019 season didn't go as planned is an understatement. After ending the 2018 campaign on a high note, the Cats' were expected to contend again in '19. But injuries, lackluster performances, and questionable decision-making (among other issues) plagued Northwestern on its way to a disappointing 3-9 record. The Wildcats posted their first losing season since 2014 and made some coaching changes as a result.

Pat Fitzgerald and company are looking to rebound in a major way in 2020. And with an easier schedule on tap, along with a new offensive coordinator, the Wildcats could get back to the postseason providing everyone stays healthy. Winning the Big Ten West will be a tall task, but a six- or seven-win season is a stronger possibility. Here's how Northwestern's 2020 schedule shakes out.

Northwestern Wildcats 2020 Schedule

Bye: Week 6

Week 1 — Sept. 5 at Michigan State (East Lansing, Mich.)

Just as they did in 2018, the Wildcats will begin this upcoming season with a conference road game. Last season a short-handed Wildcats team hosted the Spartans at Ryan Field and were held to just 10 points in an embarrassing loss. That loss would end NU's three-game winning streak in the series. But if everyone on the Wildcats' roster is healthy by opening week, then the Cats' will give themselves a chance. Northwestern has won the last two meetings at Spartan Stadium (2016, '18) by a combined score of 83-59.

Week 2 — Sept. 12 vs. Tulane (Evanston, Ill.)

The Wildcats are 1-3 all-time against the Green Wave with their only win coming all the way back in 1930. Tulane won back-to-back matchups in 1955 and '56, but these two teams haven't played each other since. The Wildcats are 6-4 all-time against teams from the Athletic American Conference (AAC).

Week 3 — Sept. 19 vs. Central Michigan (Evanston, Ill.)

The Wildcats defeated the Chippewas in their only meeting back in 2010 (30-25). Northwestern is 4-3 in their last seven games against Mid-American Conference teams, while CMU hasn't defeated a Big Ten team since 2014 (Purdue, 0-3 since then).

Week 4 — Sept. 26 at Penn State (State College, Pa.)

This could wind up being the most difficult game on Northwestern's schedule. The Nittany Lions are riding high after winning 11 games, capping things off with a blowout of AAC champion Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. Penn State is returning a stable of young talent that is capable of competing with anybody in the country, and James Franklin's team has its eyes on the Big Ten East crown. Northwestern has split the last two meetings with Penn State, but both games occurred at Ryan Field. The Wildcats haven't won in Happy Valley since claiming back-to-back victories back in 2003 and '04.

Week 5 — Oct. 3 vs. Nebraska (Evanston, Ill.)

This sudden rivalry has become one of the most back-and-forth matchups since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011. The Cornhuskers maintain an 8-5 edge overall, but the Wildcats have won three of the last five meetings despite being outscored (120-118) during that stretch. Four of those five games were decided by single digits and 2017 and '18 matchups went to overtime. Northwestern and Nebraska are both hoping for better results this season, so expect another thriller in October.

Week 7 — Oct. 17 vs. Maryland (Evanston, Ill.)

This will be just the second meeting between these two programs. Northwestern won the first one in 2017 and Maryland is 23-86-1 all-time against Big Ten opponents, including before the Terrapins joined.

Week 8 — Oct. 24 at Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa)

Any conversation about the Big Ten West title has to include the Hawkeyes. And over the last few seasons, Iowa has played a role in crowning the division winner in some form or fashion, including winning it in 2015. Northwestern won in Iowa City in 2018 to clinch the Big Ten West but the Hawkeyes pitched a shutout (20-0) last season in Evanston to break their three-game losing streak to the Wildcats. Iowa will feature several new starters in key positions this fall, including quarterback.

Week 9 — Oct. 31 at Purdue (West Lafayette, Ind.)

Last year's matchup in Evanston was the Boilermakers' first victory over the Wildcats since 2010. Before that Northwestern had rattled off five straight victories and outscored Purdue 158-85 in the process. NU is 5-1 in its six last trips to Ross-Ade Stadium.

Week 10 — Nov. 7 vs. Wisconsin at Wrigley Field (Chicago)

Northwestern certainly picked a quality opponent for their second Wrigley Field appearance in program history. The Badgers are the defending Big Ten West champs but they have a foul taste in their mouths after finishing the campaign with losses in both the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl. They'll have to replace running back Jonathan Taylor, among others, but Wisconsin will be in the hunt again for 2020. The Wildcats stunned the Badgers with a 31-17 win at home two years ago, but UW got payback with last year's 24-15 victory in Madison.

Northwestern's first trip to the "Friendly Confines" back in 2010 was a disaster. The Wildcats played Illinois in a game in which both teams were limited to using the west end of the field because Wrigley's dimensions at that time created a safety hazard. It didn't prevent the Fighting Illini from dominating Northwestern in a 48-27 blowout. For this matchup with Wisconsin, both ends of the field will be available as Wrigley has undergone a series of renovations since then.

Week 11 — Nov. 14 vs. Morgan State (Evanston, Ill.)

This game will be one for the history books as this will be the first time that the Wildcats have played a MEAC team from the FCS ranks.

Week 12 — Nov. 21 at Minnesota (Minneapolis)

The Golden Gophers are coming off of their first 11-win season in school history, their first top-10 ranking since 1962, and as a result are a prime favorite to contend for the Big Ten West title this fall. This series has been pretty even in recent years with the teams splitting the last eight meetings.

Week 13 — Nov. 28 vs. Illinois (Evanston, Ill.)

The Fighting Illini will be chomping at the bit to exact revenge on the Wildcats. The Illini have lost five straight to Northwestern but last season's result was the most shocking. The bowl-bound Illini were primed to break their losing streak against an NU team that was down to its fourth-string quarterback (Andrew Marty) and missing other key players. But in true Wildcat fashion, Northwestern dug down deep and kept its winning streak in this series going thanks to 378 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a convincing 29-10 victory. Marty accounted for 111 yards and two scores on the ground.

— 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.