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September 24, 2013

Accepting the challenge



Northwestern's future non-conference slate is about to get a lot more difficult.

The Northwestern athletic department confirmed Tuesday the addition of a Sept. 6 matchup with Northern Illinois and confirmed a late-season Nov. 15 matchup with Notre Dame. Toss in a pre-existing game against Cal, and Northwestern finds itself with a non-conference schedule that will be great for proving the strength of next year's team. Only FCS opponent Western Illinois qualifies as a "break" in the demanding slate.

But is there value in adding an NIU team that is currently 3-0 and has won back-to-back MAC titles? Wins all count the same, after all, and this schedule move won't make it any easier to add tick marks to the victory column.

Sure, NIU's stud quarterback, Jordan Lynch, will be gone next year, but this is no glorified walkthrough. Even at Ryan Field, this will be a tough game -- just ask Iowa, which dropped a home game to the Huskies on Aug. 31. And, for the most part, Northwestern doesn't have too much to gain.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke at Big Ten Media Days about the importance of scheduling teams that are in prime recruiting areas for the Wildcats, and the in-state Huskies definitely fall into that category. But Northwestern already holds the upper hand in that area. Not many players, given the chance to play for NIU and Northwestern, would choose to head to DeKalb. In fact, Northwestern freshman Tommy Fuessel decommitted from NIU and headed south to Evanston instead just last winter.

If the Cats win big, they're simply fulfilling expectations. They are, after all, a Big Ten school. A close win means fans start worrying about the team's ability to compete in the Big Ten, and the other option would be a flat-out disaster.

But with every reason not to play NIU, bravo to Northwestern for making the right call and adding them to the schedule.

If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best. Notre Dame played for the national title last year, and Northwestern hopes to have a shot like that in the future. Heck, NIU played in a BCS bowl last year, and the Wildcats would love to appear in one of those, too.

It also makes a lot of sense with the new playoff system that is headed to college football. A selection committee would be more impressed with wins over these teams rather than victories over Maine and Western Michigan.

That's not to say Northwestern scheduled these games to increase the team's chances of playing for a national title. That's not realistic at this point.

Fitzgerald, however, has mentioned this as a goal for the future. After Big Ten titles, the next step is to do it on the national scale. And while this might not happen for a few years, Fitzgerald expects it to happen eventually.

"I think you have to have a strength-of-schedule to be in the conversation for the postseason to get the championship opportunities and that's what we aspire to be -- a championship-level program," Fitzgerald said after practice on Tuesday. "You gotta have your schedule in place. You never know, you can never predict what's going to happen in those years, but at the same time I think we've made it pretty clear that we want to play games that make sense, games against academic comprables, against teams that regionally make sense, things of that nature. So it should be a great challenge for us."

Indeed, it will be. NIU, Notre Dame and Cal are no cupcakes, and Northwestern's ability to compete with, and potentially beat these teams shows both where this program is, and where it is headed.

"I think we've made it pretty obvious that we want to have a challenging non-conference schedule, and we needed a game for next year," Fitzgerald said. "It makes a lot of sense I think for both squads, should be a lot of fun."

Winning is also fun. And while the task just got a little bit harder, this decision shows Fitzgerald and Co. are committed to keep climbing the ladder toward a bigger sort of success.





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