After posting one of the best seasons in program history in 2020, the Northwestern Wildcats had high expectations heading into last season. But the talent losses from the previous year, combined with injuries, a lack of depth at some positions, and inconsistency across the board, gave NU its first losing campaign since 2019. However, after picking up some new recruits and adjusting some key positions this offseason, Pat Fitzgerald hopes to lead his team back to a bowl game.
There are also some familiar faces returning such as quarterback Ryan Hilinski, running back Evan Hull, wide receiver Malik Washington, linebacker Bryce Gallagher, and defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr. The Wildcats will have a strong balance of both youth and experience on this year's roster.
In order to go bowling again, however, the "Cardiac Cats" will have to go through another grueling Big Ten schedule and a non-conference slate full of trap games. Here is the road that the Wildcats will need to take in order to be bowl eligible once again.
Northwestern Wildcats' 2022 Schedule
Byes: Week 1 and 7
Week 0 - Aug. 27 vs. Nebraska (Dublin, Ireland)
The Wildcats will begin the season across the pond against one of their fiercest rivals over the last few seasons. Since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, the Wildcats have gone 5-6 against them. Eight of those games were decided by single digits, including two (2017-18) that required overtime, and this will be just the second meeting between these two programs on a neutral field.
The first time was the 2000 Alamo Bowl, which Nebraska dominated 66-17. Last year's 56-7 blowout win by the Huskers in Lincoln was one of the few breaks they got in 2021, as the home team took advantage of a short-handed Wildcats squad that had a revolving door at quarterback.
This game will be a must-win for both teams. Northwestern wants payback for last season, while Nebraska head coach Scott Frost is on the hot seat.
Week 2 - Sept. 10 vs. Duke (Evanston, Ill.)
Here's another series that has become an intense rivalry through the years. The Blue Devils will come into Evanston riding a three-game winning streak against Northwestern, including last year's 30-23 victory in Durham. Duke leads the all-time series 11-10 and is 6-4 all-time in Evanston, but the Wildcats have fared better against the Blue Devils at home.
Week 3 - Sept. 17 vs. Southern Illinois (Evanston, Ill.)
Northwestern is 19-2 all-time against FCS opposition and is 10-1 specifically against the Missouri Valley Football Conference. But Northwestern struggled to defeat Indiana State at home last year, relying on a strong first quarter to take a 24-6 win that was marked by a lack of offensive production (just 66 passing yards, two turnovers) by the Wildcats.
This year, Southern Illinois will pay a visit to Ryan Field with the Salukis coming off of an 8-5 campaign that included a first-round playoff win. Last season, SIU put a scare into Kansas State, losing 31-23 to the Wildcats in Manhattan, and defeated UMass in 2019, so Northwestern knows not to take this FCS foe lightly.
Week 4 - Sept. 24 vs. Miami (Ohio) (Evanston, Ill.)
The Wildcats are 20-12-1 all-time against the Mid-American Conference, but they're 3-6 vs. the RedHawks. Last year, Northwestern flexed its muscles a bit in a 35-6 victory over Ohio in a game that saw Hull rush for 216 yards.
But the Wildcats fell to Akron in a forgettable 2018 meeting, and Miami (Ohio) is just a couple of seasons removed from a MAC championship (2019). Northwestern can't afford to look past the RedHawks, even with a return to Big Ten play looming.
Week 5 - Oct. 1 at Penn State (State College, Pa.)
This will be the first meeting with the Nittany Lions since 2017 and the Wildcats' first trip to Happy Valley since 2014 when NU walked out of Beaver Stadium with a 29-6 victory. Northwestern has actually won two of the last three meetings with Penn State but still trails the overall series 5-14. Since 2014, NU has posted a 10-12 record against Big Ten East teams, including going just 2-4 in the last six crossover matchups.
This is the start of a very difficult intra-division slate for the Wildcats, and picking up another road victory against Penn State would produce some much-needed momentum moving forward.
Week 6 - Oct. 8 vs. Wisconsin (Evanston, Ill.)
The Badgers may own a 61-37-5 lead in the series, but both teams have evenly split the last eight meetings and the Wildcats have won three of the last four encounters at Ryan Field. This divisional rivalry has played a role in deciding the Big Ten West champion over the last few years, with Northwestern's victories in 2018 and '20 fueling its title runs.
Week 8 - Oct. 22 at Maryland (College Park, Md.)
Northwestern has yet to lose to the Terrapins (2-0), with both meetings coming since Maryland joined the Big Ten. The Terps are coming off of their first winnings season since 2016, and the offense led by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa will pose a challenge for the Wildcats' rebuilding defense.
Week 9 - Oct. 29 at Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa)
The Wildcats are 10-7 in their last 17 games against the Hawkeyes, with six of those wins coming at Kinnick Stadium, including a Big Ten West-clinching victory in 2020. Between the record and how the games have gone, this has developed into one of the conference's most competitive series in recent seasons. Iowa is the defending division champ but has to replace some key pieces while Northwestern would love nothing more than to pick up a fourth straight win in Iowa City.
Week 10 - Nov. 5 vs. Ohio State (Evanston, Ill.)
Fitzgerald is winless (0-8) against the Buckeyes, including the 2018 and '20 Big Ten Championship Games. Ohio State didn't play for the conference title last season but is coming off of a 10th straight winning campaign, including a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Utah. Ohio State is 23-2 in Big Ten crossover play since 2014 and no doubt will be heavily favored for this matchup, even though it's in Evanston. It will take a miracle for the Wildcats to pull off what would be the biggest upset of the Fitzgerald era.
Week 11 - Nov. 12 at Minnesota (Minneapolis)
The Wildcats will look to snap a two-game losing streak to P.J. Fleck and the Golden Gophers. After a rough go of it in 2020 during the pandemic-shortened season, Minnesota bounced back nicely with a 9-4 record. This season, the Gophers hope to contend for the Big Ten West title, and if things go according to plan, this home matchup could play a big role in their pursuit of that goal.
Week 12 - Nov. 19 at Purdue (West Lafayette, Ind.)
These two teams met in Wrigley Field last season, with the Boilermakers securing a comfortable 32-14 victory. This year's meeting shifts back to campus sites, and the Wildcats have won the past four encounters at Ross-Ade Stadium, so maybe the change of scenery will do the visitors some good.
Week 13 - Nov. 26 vs. Illinois (Evanston, Ill.)
The Wildcats' six-game winning streak against the Fighting Illini came to a screeching halt last season with a 47-14 thumping in Champaign. Head coach Bret Bielema seems to have his Illinois team rebounding nicely after years of struggle. It's possible that this game could decide bowl eligibility for one or both teams, so expect the in-state rivals to lay it all on the line in Evanston. Northwestern has won four of the last five home dates with the Illini.
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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.