Does Northwestern Have a Realistic Shot to Win the Big Ten West?
The Northwestern Wildcats are one of the pleasant surprises so far this season, not only for the Big Ten but for college football as a whole. They opened the season with a bang, beating a very well-coached Stanford team that beat a talented USC squad on the road in Week 3. From there, the Wildcats have quietly taken care of business, picking up a quality road victory against Duke along the way.
Entering the season, the Big Ten was expected to have two top tier teams (Ohio State and Michigan State) and a few middle tier teams (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska) with Northwestern somewhere in the middle-to-low tier with the likes of Maryland and Iowa.
Four weeks into the season and things have shifted around a little bit. The #16 Wildcats are the third-highest ranked Big Ten team behind #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan State. This surprising question now arises: Can Fitzgerald's bunch can win the Big Ten West.
The answer is yes, but it won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
The Wildcats have been consistent on offense with QB Clayton Thorson throwing for 543 yards and 4 touchdowns, while RB Justin Jackson has totaled 516 rushing yards. Defensively, Northwestern has been great as well, ranking 11th in the country in total defense and tied for 5th in red zone defense. To see whether the Wildcats can win the Big Ten West, though, you must look at the Wildcats' remaining schedule. Northwestern is fortunate that Michigan State and Ohio State do not make an appearance on their slate, but there are still some tricky games that could trip them up.
Minnesota- October 3rd
This game could really inform the country that Northwestern is a team that shouldn't be taken lightly, or on the other hand, they are a team that had a fluky start to the season and are finally coming down to earth. The Golden Gophers gave TCU a scare in the first game of the season but they have looked very shaky as of late, winning each of their last three games by only 3 points. Prediction: Minnesota continues to struggle and Northwestern takes advantage of turnovers.
Prediction: Northwestern wins 28-17. (1-0 Big Ten record)
At Michigan- October 10th
Pat Fitzgerald vs. Jim Harbaugh is quite the intriguing matchup. The Wolverines dominated BYU 31-0 in Week 4 and looked solid in every aspect, especially on defense, holding the Cougars to 105 total yards. This win would solidify the Wildcats as a top-15 team, but the moment might be a little too big for freshman QB Clayton Thorson.
Prediction: Michigan wins 24-14. (1-1 Big Ten record)
Iowa- October 17th
This will be a low-scoring affair, but the Wildcats will find a way to win at home.
Prediction: Northwestern wins 14-10. (2-1 Big Ten record)
At Nebraska- October 24th
Two weeks after playing in the Big House, Northwestern travels to Lincoln to face the Cornhuskers in what could be a season-defining game. A loss wouldn't completely take them out of the Big Ten West picture but it could seriously hurt their chances.
Prediction: Northwestern plays mistake-free football and escapes Lincoln with a 31-24 victory. (3-1 Big Ten record)
Penn State- November 7th
The Nittany Lions have struggled at times this season, but most of their problems are fixable. Christian Hackenberg and Penn State get revenge from last year and win by a field goal.
Prediction: Penn State wins 31-28. (3-2 Big Ten record)
Purdue- November 14th
The score in this one won't even be close.
Prediction: Wildcats win 42-14. (4-2 Big Ten record)
At Wisconsin- November 21st
You never know what to expect with college football, but most likely, the Badgers will be undefeated or have one loss in Big Ten play when Northwestern comes to town. Last season, the Wildcats upset Wisconsin but the Badgers still ended up in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game. This season, Pat Fitzgerald and company want to take Wisconsin's spot.
Prediction: Northwestern wins 24-21. (5-2 Big Ten record)
Illinois- November 28th
After a huge victory against Wisconsin, the Wildcats will have a slight hangover against the Illini, but still hold on for the victory.
Prediction: Northwestern wins 28-24. (6-2 Big Ten record)
With my predictions, Northwestern finishes the season at 6-2 in the Big Ten, winning the West division. Wisconsin also finishes 6-2, but the Wildcats would win the head-to-head tiebreaker.
What I just laid out is probably the best case scenario for the Wildcats, because I don't see them going undefeated in Big Ten play. Could Northwestern lose three conference games and still win the West? Sure, but it would be very difficult. I think all eyes will be on their matchup with Wisconsin on November 21st, where the winner will most likely win the West division.
In conclusion, nobody truly knows what will happen weeks from now, but based on what Northwestern has done so far this season, a trip to the Big Ten Championship game is definitely in the cards.