Big Ten

Breaking down Northwestern's 2015-16 non-conference schedule

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Breaking down Northwestern's 2015-16 non-conference schedule

Northwestern released its non-conference schedule for the 2015-16 season on Wednesday, but there's really only one topic of concern that surrounds this program:

Will this be the year the Cats finally make an NCAA tournament appearance?

Last season, the second of the Chris Collins Era, featured another long losing streak during conference play, but thanks to some strong play toward the end of the season, the Cats finished eighth in the Big Ten, an improvement over 2014's 11th-place finish.

There were plenty of reasons for hope for the future last season, most coming from Collins' continually exciting recruiting success. Vic Law was the highest-rated Northwestern recruit on record, and another highly touted freshman, point guard Bryant McIntosh, had such a great season that he landed on the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team alongside superstars like D'Angelo Russell and Melo Trimble.

McIntosh and Law will be back this season along with upperclassmen Tre Demps and Alex Olah, each coming off their own solid campaigns. And two incoming freshmen, the highly rated Jordan Ash and Aaron Falzon, have added to the rave reviews over Collins' recruiting.

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini announce Dee Brown as special assistant to AD Mike Thomas]

So with that in mind, here's an opponent-by-opponent look at Northwestern's 2015-16 non-conference slate.

Nov. 13: vs. UMass-Lowell

The River Hawks have been playing Division-I hoops for just two seasons and won a total of 22 games in those two seasons.

Nov. 18: vs. Fairfield

The Stags haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1997 and have won just 14 games in the past two seasons combined. Northwestern and Fairfield have one previous meeting, an 18-point Fairfield win to open the 1976-77 season.

Nov. 20: vs. Columbia

After a solid 21-13 showing in 2013-14, the Lions stumbled last season, finishing at 13-15. Man had yet to reach the moon the last time Columbia made an NCAA tournament appearance. Northwestern is 1-1 in two previous matchups, the most recent in 1991.

[MORE BIG TEN: Is Buckeyes' D'Angelo Russell the best player in the NBA Draft?]

Nov. 23/24: CBE Hall of Fame Classic, Kansas City, Mo.

The highlight of the Cats' non-conference portion of the schedule, they'll participate in one of college basketball's better offseason events. Played at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Northwestern will play two of the three other schools in the event on consecutive nights. The Day 1 matchups are to-be-announced, but the three others participating are North Carolina, Kansas State and Missouri. It will provide two matchups against big programs from big-time conferences. The Tar Heels are perennial national-title contenders and could be this season's preseason No. 1 team. The other purple Wildcats are helmed by former Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. Mizzou, though a strong program in recent history, is coming off its worst season since the mid-1960s, a nine-win campaign under first-year head coach Kim Anderson.

Nov. 28: vs. New Orleans

No, it's not the Pelicans, and Olah won't have to worry about defending Anthony Davis. The Privateers have averaged fewer than 10 wins over the past five seasons and have yet to return to their Tim Floyd-led glory days of the mid-1990s. Northwestern has played New Orleans once before, a 65-54 win for the Cats in 1978.

Dec. 1: at Virginia Tech (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)

It's been a pretty long NCAA tournament drought for the Hokies, who haven't been to the Big Dance since 2007. Buzz Williams is entering his second year as the head coach in Blacksburg, where this one will be played. Somewhat surprisingly, this will be the first meeting between these two programs. Interestingly, Northwestern welcomed in Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren this offseason. Eligible to play as a grad transfer, he'll be going up against his former team in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

[MORE BIG TEN: Five-star guard Josh Langford is Spartans' latest recruiting splash]

Dec. 5: vs. SIU-Edwardsville

The Cougars are just five seasons into their tenure as a major D-I college basketball program and have yet to finish over .500. But they did establish a new high last season with 12 wins. Northwestern has four wins in four tries all-time against SIUE.

Dec. 13: vs. Chicago State

Another group of Illinois-based Cougars, these guys are entering their third season as members of the WAC after winning just eight games a year ago. Chicago State has never made the NCAA tournament in 31 seasons as a major program. Northwestern and Chicago State have played nine times since 1981 (most recently in 2010), and the Cats have won all nine games.

Dec. 19: at DePaul

The Blue Demons have a new, old head coach as Dave Leitao is back at the helm of the program after five dismal seasons under Oliver Purnell. DePaul's last NCAA tournament trip came in 2004, during Leitao's first stint in Lincoln Park. This will be game No. 31 in a longtime series, a series DePaul has a big 20-10 lead in. The last meeting was a dramatic 57-56 win for the Demons in Evanston. This will be the Cats' first trip to the Allstate Arena since 2007.

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Dec. 21: vs. Sacred Heart

The Pioneers have only been playing major college hoops since 1999 and haven't reached the NCAA tournament in that time. This will be Year 3 of the Anthony Latina Era, and after a five-win season to start things off, Sacred Heart bounced back with 15 wins last season. Northwestern's never seen Sacred Heart, but incoming freshman Aaron Falzon ought to be familiar. His brother, Tevin, plays for the Pioneers.

Dec. 27: vs. Loyola (Maryland)

It's not the Ramblers, but it'll have to do. The Greyhounds made the NCAA tournament in 2012 but have just 22 wins in the past two seasons combined. Northwestern has seen Loyola (Maryland) before, in 2006, a win for the Cats.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

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

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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?