“One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same…”
In Big Ten football, that melody from Sesame Street applies most to Northwestern. Although the league was founded with another private school in Chicago (specifically, the University of Chicago), Northwestern stands alone as the only private school in the 14-team Big Ten Conference.
Not surprisingly, the smart kids are also at the cutting edge of fighting for player rights, as Northwestern is the only school that has a football team pushing to unionize.
The Wildcats are also the only team bold enough to wear the royal color of purple, as the rest of the league is draped in various shades of primary colors such as red/scarlet/crimson, yellow/gold, and blue.
But those aspects that make Northwestern unique also render that football program at a natural disadvantage when it comes to resources devoted to football and recruiting ability. Competing against the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, each of which regularly fill 100,000+ seat shrines of college football for seven or eight Saturdays every fall, is a tough endeavor. That has made it exceedingly difficult for Northwestern to win Big Ten titles.
Despite being a member since the conference founding in 1896, Northwestern only has 8 Big Ten titles and 2 Rose Bowl appearances, as only 2 of the titles have been outright, in 1936 and 1995. That ranks ahead of only Indiana and the newer members of the conference (Penn State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Maryland).
However, there’s reason to be optimistic in Evanston. Not only do the Wildcats have an established coach Pat Fitzgerald who is fully committed to his alma mater, but the realignment into East and West Divisions actually favors the Wildcats, based on recent history.
Every team has opponents in conference that give them a lot of trouble, and other opponents that are easier to beat on a consistent basis. Part of this is styles of football, and part of this is just dumb luck of the circumstances.
But Northwestern is now in a division stacked with those teams that the Wildcats do well against, especially over the past two decades when Northwestern has been more respectable overall than the 60-year period before that. This alignment, if it sticks over time, will tend to make Northwestern a far more regular competitor for conference championships. Let’s take a look at the numbers since 1995, as well as the overall historical records for the Wildcats against conference opponents.
vs. Illinois: 12-7 since 1995, 48-54 overall
vs. Iowa: 10-7 since 1995, 24-48 overall
vs. Minnesota: 9-6 since 1995, 33-51 overall
vs. Nebraska: 1-2 since 2011 (all close games), 2-5 overall
vs. Purdue: 6-10 since 1995, 27-50 overall
vs. Wisconsin: 6-7 since 1995, 33-57 overall
TOTAL: 44-39 since 1995 (53.0%), 167-265 overall (38.7%)
vs. Indiana: 11-3 since 1995, 46-34 overall
vs. Maryland: 0-0 since 2014, 0-0 overall
vs. Michigan: 4-11 since 1995, 15-55 overall
vs. Michigan State: 6-9 since 1995, 16-38 overall
vs. Ohio State: 1-10 since 1995, 14-60 overall
vs. Penn State: 3-11 since 1995, 3-13 overall
vs. Rutgers: 0-0 since 2014, 0-3 overall
TOTAL: 25-44 since 1995 (36.2%), 94-203 overall (31.6%)
As shown clearly by the numbers, the resurgence of Northwestern’s football program since the Rose Bowl season of 1995 has largely come at the expense of the so-called middle and lower-tier brand names in the Big Ten. Northwestern has continued to mightily struggle against the brand names Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. All those teams are now segregated from annual games with the Wildcats, though.
Thus, just splitting the divisions as a whole, Northwestern has barely improved in the last 20 years against the East Division at 36.2% wins, while the West Division opponents are being defeated 53.0% of the time by the Wildcats, which is a huge improvement over the longer historical struggles of this program.
Indeed, the only team with a significant winning margin against Northwestern recently in the West Division is Purdue, and that team is in the middle of a long rebuild that is evening out the record between these teams. Even Nebraska, the big brand name in the West Division, has not won convincingly against Northwestern since joining the league.
Thus, every intra-division game is one in which Northwestern has a good chance to win, especially when the team is built well thanks to the up-and-down recruiting cycles. If Northwestern had to play Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State every season, the poor results speak for themselves. Even though two of these three teams are struggling right now, Northwestern has not proven over recent time that wins will come consistently even when those programs in the East undergo transition.
Thus, Northwestern received the most favorable division draw possible in the new Big Ten Conference. Regardless of how the games in 2014 go against Nebraska and the rest of the division, Northwestern is set up for periodic success and possibly even more conference championships.
That’s a way better situation than would be present in the East Division. So enjoy the new divisions Wildcats fans, as you couldn’t have hand-picked them much better.
Northwestern cannot be ignored going forward, even with false starts like what happened this season due to injury concerns. That makes the West Division worth watching for years to come.