Big Ten

A game-by-game breakdown of Northwestern's non-conference schedule

chris-collins-0615.jpg

A game-by-game breakdown of Northwestern's non-conference schedule

Is this the year?

Last week, Northwestern released its non-conference schedule for the upcoming 2016-17 campaign, and with it rekindled the question as old as the NCAA tournament itself: Will this finally be the season in which the Wildcats get an invite to the Big Dance?

The non-conference portion of the schedule was an extremely successful stretch for the Cats last season. They lost just once — to eventual national runner-up North Carolina — and headed into Big Ten play with a 12-1 record, causing many to think Chris Collins was moving toward breaking that age-old drought.

Stumbles in conference play followed, lowlighted by a particularly tough 2-8 stretch, and the Cats missed out on the field of 68.

But, like last season, this year brings plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

Bryant McIntosh returns for his junior season as one of the best point guards in the Big Ten. Vic Law is back from an injury that wiped out his 2015-16 season before it started. Scottie Lindsey upped the level of his game last season. Aaron Falzon and Dererk Pardon emerged as freshman standouts. And Collins welcomes in another impressive recruiting class featuring a pair of four-star prospects in Barret Benson and Rapolas Ivanauskas.

So will this be the year the Cats finally go dancing? Another successful non-conference part of the schedule will of course be key. Let’s take a game-by-game look at the Cats’ non-conference opponents.

Nov. 11: Mississippi Valley State

The Delta Devils have been a staple of Northwestern's non-conference schedules in recent history, the two squads facing off in each of the past five seasons. In the all-time series, the Cats have lost just once, in 2003. Last year, the Cats won by 30, and the year prior they dropped 101 points on the visiting Delta Devils. Mississippi Valley State, a member of the SWAC, has failed to reach double-digit victories in each of the last four seasons.

Nov. 16: Butler

The Cats will again travel to take on the Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indy, just like they did two seasons ago. Butler has now reached the NCAA tournament in eight of the last 10 seasons after winning 22 games a season ago. The Bulldogs hold a 16-10 all-time series lead against the Cats, including wins in each of the last five meetings. The last time the Cats won at Hinkle? 1968.

Nov. 14, 21, 22, 25: Legends Classic

The Cats will participate in the Legends Classic this season, which will feature a pair of games against high-profile opponents in Brooklyn and two more against lower-level opponents in Evanston. Northwestern’s Brooklyn games come on Nov. 21 and 22 and will pit the Cats against two of three teams who made the NCAA tournament last season: Notre Dame, Texas and Colorado.

The Fighting Irish made their second straight Elite Eight last season, suffering a loss to North Carolina a year after suffering a narrow loss to Kentucky. Northwestern and Notre Dame played annually from 1921 to 1961 — sometimes meetings multiple times in the same season — and played 11 more times between 1963 and 1984. But the teams have played just once since: a 72-58 win for the Cats in 2009. Should they meet in Brooklyn, it will be a rare opportunity to renew what was a frequent series in the first half of the 20th century, a series the Irish lead 63-24-1.

Texas won 20 games last season while playing in an extremely competitive Big 12. Shaka Smart’s first season at the helm of the program ended when the Longhorns fell in the Round of 64 on that miraculous half-court buzzer-beater by Northern Iowa. Northwestern and Texas have only played twice, with the Cats winning the first game by a bucket in 1965 and the Horns winning by four in 1974.

Colorado reached the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons, posting 22 wins while playing in a challenging Pac-12. The Buffs bowed out of the tournament with a first-round loss to Connecticut. The Cats and Buffs have met just twice since the late 60s, with Colorado winning both matchups in 2003 and 2004.

Nov. 28: Wake Forest

The Cats will play hosts to the Demon Deacons as part of this year’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The two teams have never met before, and Wake is in quite the slump, six straight seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance. But the Deacons bring plenty of buzz in the form of their head coach, Danny Manning, who is entering his third season with Wake. The Deacons did inflict some damage on the Big Ten last season, first scoring a huge upset over Indiana in Maui before winning their Challenge game against Rutgers. In 17 Challenges, Northwestern has a 7-10 record and an even 4-4 mark at home. Last season, the Cats scored one of their bigger non-conference wins in the Challenge with an overtime win at Virginia Tech.

Dec. 3: DePaul

There haven’t been too many long breaks in this series since the teams started playing fairly regularly in the early 70s. The Blue Devils hold a 20-11 all-time series lead, buoyed mostly by an 11-game winning streak in the program’s 70s and 80s heyday. But they can’t boast about much else, winners of just nine games last season in Dave Leitao’s return to the program. After a stunning loss in 2013, Northwestern exacted revenge last season, winning by eight in overtime in Rosemont. This season, the scene shifts back to Evanston.

Dec. 11: New Orleans

The Privateers popped up on the Cats’ non-conference schedule last season, and it was a 90-63 whooping. This season’s get-together will mark the third all-time meeting between the two schools, with Northwestern also winning the first matchup in 1978. New Orleans went 10-20 last season and hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1996.

Dec. 14: Chicago State

While the Cougars put a scare into Illinois last season, Northwestern had no trouble, with a huge 77-35 victory. The Cats have won all 10 games in this series, and 11 certainly looks like a possibility, as the lowly Cougars were just 4-28 last season.

Dec. 17: Dayton

Part of a doubleheader at the United Center (the other game features Illinois taking on BYU), this one should be interesting. Archie Miller has done a terrific job at Dayton, leading the Flyers to 78 wins and a trio of NCAA tournament appearances in the last three seasons. The Flyers hold a 2-1 series edge in three previous games against the Cats, though those came a long time ago in 1972, 1997 and 1998. Despite a great non-conference record last season, Northwestern had trouble gaining much attention due to underwhelming opponents. A win over Dayton would make for a much different script.

Dec. 20: IUPUI

The Jaguars had some great seasons under now-famous chair-faller-offer Ron Hunter, but since he left following the 2010-11 season, IUPUI has posted win totals of 14, six, six, 10 and 13. These two schools have played just once, with the Jaguars actually claiming the lone victory, a 56-53 decision in 2002 — the only season Hunter took them to the NCAA tournament.

Dec. 22: Houston Baptist

The Huskies are moving in the right direction when it comes to winning games, with head coach Ron Cottrell leading them from six to 12 to 17 wins in the last three seasons, respectively. Last season’s .500 finish was a first for the program as a major program since 1987. Northwestern tangled with Houston Baptist just two years ago, winning 65-58 in Evanston.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

1114_miami_hurricanes.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.