ESPN.com’s Brett McMurphy and Adam Rittenberg posted this article on Friday citing sources that the B1G conference realignment for 2014 is set to be voted on and likely approved next week. Additionally, starting in 2016, a 9-game conference slate will take effect, reducing the non-conference slate to only three games per year. Of course, the much maligned “Legends” and “Leaders” names will become geographical “West” and “East” divisions much to the delight of many fans. I’m likely a bit of an exaggerator when it comes to what this means for Northwestern, but I believe this is a positive gamechanger for the ‘Cats.
Let’s get through the basics. First, the West Division (beginning with the 2014 season):
We will play all six of these opponents every single year. I love it for a lot of reasons. First, if you look at the current power rankings, you’d have Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin as the top three. These are three programs – Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska – with whom we have had fantastic games in recent years, albeit with a very small sample set for Nebraska. When you look at our past 20-year head-to-head records against this division, it boasts, from a winning percentage, nearly all of our best performances with the obvious exception of Indiana. Plus, the rivalry factor. Prior to the most recent hiatus with Wisconsin, that series had developed a pretty nice rivalry factor, especially considering the border war nature of Wisconsites and Illinoisans not liking one another so much. The series has had some incredibly crazy games and has been a near draw in the past 22 years. Obviously, Iowa has blossomed as a relatively new rival and one that we have owned in the Pat Fitzgerald era. Throw in Illinois, our natural rival and of course, Nebraska, potentially the series with the most upside based on the drama in the first two games, and I love the fact we’ve got these locked in as annual dates.
Let’s take a look at the Pat Fitzgerald-era record against the West teams (in bold) and East teams:
(e)Michigan State: 2-5
(e)Ohio State: 0-3
(e)Penn State: 0-5
If you looked at the current division alignment for 2013 through the above prism, I think we’d be pretty darn happy. Of course, there will be two games from the East Division for the first two seasons (2014 and 2015) before Northwestern will have to replace a low-attended non-conference home game with a B1G game as the conference expands to a 9-game slate. Let’s take a look at the East:
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Penn State
Clearly, depending upon which three teams you play or don’t play it will weight your schedule. Mark Rudner, the B1G schedule czar is very much aware of this and I find it very unlikely that the ‘Cats would find themselves void of Ohio State, Michigan AND say, Michigan State in the same season. At this point in time, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana would be the three teams you’d want if you’re looking for the easiest path, but things change (see the wildcard of Penn State).
From Northwestern’s perspective, I love the 9-game conference slate as it just means more buzz to build a sold-out Ryan Field. Would you rather play Maine or Maryland? Western Michigan or Penn State? It will be fascinating to see how Jim Phillips and Fitz decide on which future opponents to remove from the non-conference slate as the 4-game philosophy has been centered on like-minded academic BCS schools (Stanford, Duke, Notre Dame etc..) with a season-opening road game (Cal, Syracuse, Vandy etc) and one FCS game. The FCS games will thankfully go away, but with three games to choose from, will we simply go MAC-level for that third game, or perhaps go with two non-BCS conference games?
HailToPurple.com is my go-to source for future schedule info and decisions will need to be made for 2016 which already has the first four weeks of that season slated with Western Michigan, Illinois State (FCS) and Duke at home followed by a road game to Stanford. One of those games will go away. When you look at slates like 2018, Duke, Notre Dame and Rice are already slated. Stanford is locked in as an annual slate for years to come starting in 2015 so that plus nine B1G games already guarantees – at this point in time – what looks to be a gauntlet of a schedule. Duke is building with David Cutcliffe and could become dangerous in future years and Rice is also a regular on future schedules. Overall, you’ve got to believe that if Northwestern can continue to be an 8-to-10 win per year program with the occasional run at a division title and the above mentioned schedules, we’ll really be in prime position to finally pack Ryan Field purple every week.
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