After a big season-opening win at Cal, in a game closer than the final score indicated, Northwestern returns to Evanston to take on Syracuse this weekend, in their second of four non-conference games on the 2013 slate.
The non-conference schedule for the ‘Cats has gotten stronger in the past few years, and it’s scheduled to continue, as AD Jim Phillips targets like-minded academic schools for NU’s docket. In addition to the home and home with Cal that started last week, a trip to South Bend is on the schedule for next year, and a scheduled home-and-home series with both Stanford and Duke begin in 2015.
In 2012, NU played teams from three different AQ conferences (Big East, SEC, & ACC), and were scheduled to play three again this year, until Vanderbilt felt the ‘Cats would assume their ultimate form and again tear them apart, bowing out of the series with NU and being replaced by Western Michigan.
In seven years, Fitz has swept the non-conference schedule three times, in 2008, 2010, and 2012, and has gone 3-1 on three occasions. By themselves, these stats don’t mean a great deal, but a look at the bigger picture shows that the non-conference schedule is playing a part in Northwestern becoming a more mature and solid program.
Take the annual FCS game. While it’s easy to say these games are “nothing to gain, everything to lose” types of contests, it’s more than that. Save for the embarrassment of Fitz’s first home game, a 2006 loss against a solid New Hampshire team, NU’s games against FCS opponents have been pretty much what they’re supposed to be: relatively easy wins that allow kinks to be worked out at full speed, opportunities for backups to get significant reps, and the ability to avoid injuries to the first team in advance of the conference schedule.
Coach Fitz is 24-5 overall in the non-conference schedule (excluding bowl games). At Ryan Field, the ‘Cats are 15-2 since Fitz took over in 2006, and are currently riding a 13-game win streak at home against non-conference opponents, jinx for this weekend be damned.
In fact, any hex I may put on the team by speaking about their stellar home non-conference record will be surely reversed by the sight of honorary captain Mike Greenberg leading the team out of the tunnel in this week’s Prose Bowl.
Here’s a quick look back and summary of the Northwestern non-conference record in the Fitz era:
2006: 2-2. Lost at Nevada (8-5) and at home to FCS New Hampshire (9-4). Won at Miami, OH (2-10) and home to Eastern Michigan (1-11).
2007: 3-1. Won at home over FCS Northeastern (3-9) and Nevada (6-7), and over Eastern Michigan (4-8) at Ford Field. Lost at home to Duke (1-11).
2008: 4-0. Won at home over Syracuse (3-9), FCS Southern Illinois (9-3), and Ohio (4-8), and at Duke (4-8).
2009: 3-1. Won at home over FCS Towson (2-9) , Eastern Michigan (0-12), and Miami, OH (1-11). Lost at Syracuse (4-8).
2010: 4-0. Won at Vandy (2-10) and Rice (4-8), and at home over FCS Illinois State (6-5) and Central Michigan (3-9).
2011: 3-1. Won at Boston College (4-8) and home over FCS Eastern Illinois (2-9) and Rice (4-8). Lost at Army (3-9).
2012: 4-0. Won at Syracuse (8-5), and at home over Vanderbilt (9-4), Boston College (2-10), and FCS South Dakota (1-10).
By and large, Fitz has gotten the job done in the non-conference portion of the season. The biggest disappointments would surely be the 2011 loss at Army, where a cast of NU Sailgaters was left shocked at West Point, losing to Duke at home for the Blue Devils lone win in 2007, and losing to the Greg Paulus (Duke point guard at the helm) and Syracuse in 2009. While the teams NU has beaten in the non-conference schedule over the past seven years would hardly qualify as a Murderer’s Row, the trend is changing. NU won non-conference games against two bowl teams in 2012, and no one would be surprised if Cal was in a bowl game come December.
But, any objective NU fan would admit it’s gotten to the point where most ‘Cat fans look at the non-conference slate and expect four wins, even with a stronger schedule. This isn’t arrogant or cocky. It’s healthy. It’s an absolute sign of maturity in the program, and the way most fans of big-time programs think. Like this past weekend in Berkeley, winning pretty isn’t the most important thing. Just plain winning is.
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