Though highly underrated, this battle between two talented teams from the Midwest has the potential to be one of the best games of opening weekend.
Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats are coming off of a 10-win season, highlighted by victories over Stanford, Duke and Wisconsin. P.J. Fleck — one of the hot, young names in coaching — brings a solid Western Michigan squad to Evanston to kick off what many think could be a magical season. Both teams have their eyes on their respective conference championships – and possibly more.
Each team presents the other with a unique hurdle to overcome that could set the tone for their respective seasons. A Northwestern win would give the Wildcats the confidence that they'll need to face a tough Big Ten slate and compete in an underrated division. Meanwhile, a Western Michigan win would set the table for the Broncos to run the table and possibly earn a berth in a New Year's Six bowl game.
Western Michigan at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Northwestern -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis
Yes — he's definitely a “thing” to watch. Davis is an absolute freak who brings both size (6-3, 213) and elite speed to the table. He'll be a hot name in your fantasy leagues after 2016, but for now, he's someone Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald needs to figure out how to stop. Davis is a walking cliché in that he truly is a threat to score every time he's on the field. That's going to change the way the Wildcats’ defense attacks the Broncos, and it could lead to opportunities for Davis’ teammates to get in on the act and make some plays. P.J. Fleck's offense is tough enough to stop without the presence of one of the nation's top receivers on the outside.
2. Can Northwestern control the tempo?
The Wildcats can succeed in the game simply by being physical. The best strategy is to control the clock with their running game and hope Justin Jackson is ready for a heavy workload. The Northwestern defense is solid, but the unit will need some breathers to keep up with all that the Broncos will throw at them. The Wildcat offensive line needs to impose its will, shorten the game and minimize the number of possessions Western Michigan's offense gets. Interior lineman Brad North and Ian Park will be instrumental in the mission of getting that done. The last thing the Wildcats want is for the game to develop into a shootout where they are forced to go score-for-score – something their offense is not equipped to do.
3. Field position
This will be a game of opportunity for both sides — and that starts with good field position. Northwestern's Solomon Vault is among the best kick returners in the nation. He has the ability to counter every Western Michigan score with a big-time, momentum-changing return. Western Michigan's Darius Phillips is a return threat of his own on both kickoff and punt returns. In fact, he’s already being discussed in some circles about his future potential in the NFL in that role. As close as this game is expected to be, it’s a safe bet that one of these return specialists makes the play that eventually wins the game.
Northwestern is the more talented, more physical team and everyone knows that coming into this matchup. That said, Western Michigan has just enough talent in the right places to come out and punch the Wildcats in the mouth early. Look for the Broncos to hit on a couple of big plays early and take a small lead into halftime. It will be in the locker room where Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald will eventually turn the tide, making the necessary adjustments to finally slow down P.J. Fleck's offense. The first half will be that shootout that the Broncos want, but the second half will turn into the grinder that favors the Wildcats as they seal the deal with their run game.
Prediction: Northwestern 34, Western Michigan 27
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.