Northwestern vs. Duke. In decades past, such a matchup wouldn't seem to be one that had a big effect on the college football landscape.
But, oh, how times have changed.
The Cats are newly ranked, the No. 23 team in the country, looking capable of reviving the success of just three seasons ago, when Pat Fitzgerald's team won 10 games and a bowl game for the first time since the Truman administration.
The Blue Devils are again looking to make plenty of noise in the ACC after three straight bowl appearances and 19 wins over the past two seasons under head coach David Cutcliffe.
Just as praise has been heaped on Fitzgerald for what he's done in turning things around in Evanston — before he took over, Northwestern had been to just five bowl games since that 1949 Rose Bowl win — Cutcliffe has been lauded for his work in Durham, where Duke had been to just two bowl games since the end of Bill Murray's tenure (not that Bill Murray) in 1965. The Blue Devils played in the ACC Championship Game just two seasons ago and were close to reaching that game again last season.
“It starts with David," Fitzgerald said when asked about Duke's recent resurgence during his press conference Monday. "Coach Cut is No. 1 a terrific person, he’s an outstanding football coach and he’s got a plan. They’ve obviously stuck to their plan, they’ve worked their plan. I see a lot of similarities in our programs. They do a great job, they play hard, they play physical, they play fast, they’re a very fast team. This will be the fastest team we’ve played yet this year.”
For the Cats, this is a big game, one on equal footing with the season-opener against Stanford, when Northwestern upset the then-No. 21 team in the country to put itself on the early-season map. It's only been two weeks, but the Cats seem to be closing in on the top spot in the Big Ten's second tier — behind, of course, Ohio State and Michigan State, two top-four teams — and a win at Duke would go a long way to establishing that position.
But the first trip away from home this season and a team that's outscored its first two opponents 92-7 will make that quite a test. Fitzgerald wants to see how his team performs after tasting victory in each of the first two weeks of the season. Call it a test of both football and maturity.
“Going to be a great challenge for us, going on the road for the first time. How we handle the success this week will be a great indication by the way that we prepare," Fitzgerald said. "But playing an outstanding team, complete in all three phases, outstanding offensively, defensively, in the kicking game. Very good friends with David Cutcliffe, tremendous respect for Dave and his staff, the job that they’ve done and continue to do. Great talent across the board, so it’s going to be a great challenge.”
Coaches don't like talking about rankings, and they have a point these days with the AP and coaches polls having absolutely zero impact on which teams end up competing for a championship in the College Football Playoff. But, there's no doubting that there's some correlation between the continued winning of football games and a top-25 ranking. Northwestern's impressive start — the Cats' defense has yet to allow a touchdown — has earned the Cats a top-25 ranking. While Fitzgerald said it's a positive thing, he doesn't want anyone on the team paying too much attention to it.
“The only thing that matters, quite frankly, ranking-wise, is how you rank against your own best self, how you’re preparing mentally and how you’re preparing physically. … That’s the only that matters is ‘What are you doing compared to yourself?’" he said. "Quite frankly, I expect to be ranked, I expect our teams to compete for championships. So it’s not a surprise to me, but based on the way that we played and performed inconsistently the last two years, I think it’s one of those situations where maybe it’s a positive for the program. But not a surprise. You’ve got to earn that every second of every day, but it’s just a distraction if you focus on it.”