Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats will have their work cut out for them as they seek to defend their Big Ten West crown
Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 college football season was one of the most successful in the history of the Northwestern Wildcats program. They claimed their second Big Ten West title before giving eventual national championship game participant Ohio State a fight in Indianapolis for the conference title. The end result was a 10-year contract extension for head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the winningest coach in school history.
To defend its division crown, Northwestern will once again need to navigate a rugged divisional slate after going 5-0 against Big Ten West opponents last season. The Wildcats will face Michigan, Michigan State and Rutgers in conference crossover play, while also renewing their rivalry with Duke. Northwestern will deal with plenty of turnover at key positions and there's a new defensive coordinator calling the shots. Here's how the Wildcats' 2021 schedule breaks down.
Northwestern Wildcats 2021 Schedule
Bye: Week 6
Week 1 – Sept. 4 vs. Michigan State (Evanston, Ill.)
After winning three straight over the Spartans (2016-18), the Wildcats have since lost back-to-back games against Michigan State. Last year's loss in East Lansing was Northwestern's only one during the regular season (6-1) while the Spartans took full advantage of the injury-riddled Cats the previous year. This opener could serve as a tone-setter for both teams, especially with Michigan State looking to improve from a 2-5 showing in head coach Mel Tucker's debut.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Indiana State (Evanston, Ill.)
This will be the first matchup between Northwestern and Indiana State from the FCS ranks. The Wildcats are 4-1 against teams from the Missouri Valley Conference and 13-2 overall vs. FCS programs.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 at Duke (Durham, N.C.)
This series is split at 10-10 although Duke has won the two most recent encounters in 2017 and '18. Northwestern has fared well in Durham, taking six of the past seven matchups there, and is 5-2 in its last seven games vs. the ACC as a whole.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. Ohio (Evanston, Ill.)
Northwestern hasn't played Ohio since 2008 and is 3-1 against the Bobcats overall. The Wildcats have struggled some against teams from the MAC, splitting the last six such matchups.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 at Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb.)
The Cornhuskers have given NU an intense divisional rivalry over the last few seasons. The teams have split the last 10 meetings although the Wildcats are 2-1 in their last three trips to Memorial Stadium. Either way, expect a close game as each of the last four have been decided by single digits.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. Rutgers (Evanston, Ill.)
This will be just the fifth time these schools have met, and the first since 2018. Northwestern is 1-3 all-time against Rutgers, who showed improvement last season in Greg Schiano's return as head coach.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 at Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Northwestern has lost six in a row and 11 of the last 12 to Michigan. The last win for the Wildcats against the Wolverines came in 2008 in Ann Arbor. Northwestern went on to finish 9-4 (5-3 in Big Ten) that season.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. Minnesota (Evanston, Ill.)
Last year's scheduled game with the Golden Gophers was canceled due to the pandemic. Northwestern is 6-4 in the last 10 matchups with Minnesota, including a pair of shutouts at home in 2015 (27-0) and '17 (39-0).
Week 10 – Nov. 6 vs. Iowa (Evanston, Ill.)
Pat Fitzgerald looks to continue his recent string of success against Kirk Ferentz. NU has won four of the last five games in the series, with the 2018 victory in Iowa City clinching the Wildcats' first-ever Big Ten West title.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.)
Northwestern's 17-7 home win over the Badgers last season basically secured the Big Ten West title. Now the Wildcats will aim for back-to-back wins over Wisconsin for the first time since 2014-15. How Northwestern fares in this stretch of games following the Week 6 bye will have a significant say in how the West plays out.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. Purdue (Chicago)
The original plan was for the Wildcats to host Wisconsin at Wrigley Field last season, but the pandemic forced the Big Ten to move the game to Ryan Field with no fans. So Northwestern will try again this fall, this time hosting Purdue at the "Friendly Confines." This will be the second game at Wrigley for the Wildcats after losing to Illinois 48-27 in 2010. As for this matchup with Purdue, Northwestern has won six of the past seven meetings with the Boilermakers.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 at Illinois (Champaign, Ill.)
Northwestern is currently enjoying its longest sustained streak of success against its archrival. The Wildcats have beaten the Fighting Illini six straight times and another victory would even the all-time series (55-54-5). This year's meeting will be the first for new Illinois head coach Bret Bielema, who could really endear himself to his new fan base by putting an end to Northwestern's streak.
— 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @NUFBFamily)