Every year, Northwestern's game against its FCS foe is the easiest one to pick. No matter how little we know about the Wildcats' JV opponent, it's pretty safe to pencil it in a W, even if most don't have any idea what kind of offense or defense they run.
This year's opponent, the South Dakota Coyotes, are more mysterious than most because they don't come from Illinois, like many of NU's other small-school adversaries, and virtually no one has seen them play.
Still, while FCS games are treated more like exhibition games on most Big Ten campuses, Northwestern fans will always be a little leery about them. Every one of them probably remembers that in 2006, FCS power New Hamphshire came into Ryan Field and laid a 34-17 whipping on the home team.
What makes them feel better is knowing that Pat Fitzgerald -- who was in his first year as head coach in Evanston in 2006 -- remembers it too.
George "The Hungarian Rifle" Stoichev
Northwestern wins if… They play their game and stay solid in all phases. A definite win if Kain Colter runs for over 100 yards.
Northwestern loses if… Fitz is a liar and the team took it easy all week to face a team that has had two weeks to prepare.
The bottom line: This will be easiest game on the schedule, and Northwestern ALWAYS takes care of the easy games. Just think back to last year against Army, or the year before that against Purdue, or the year before that against Syracuse, or the year before that against Indiana. All easier games on paper that we prepared hard for, played tough, and pulled out the win.
Prediction: Northwestern 35 South Dakota 12
Alex "Don't Call Me Bruce" Wayne
Northwestern wins if… Quarterback pressure continues to improve and gives the secondary a much better chance at keeping big plays from breaking out. That isn't because I'm particularly worried about South Dakota's passing attack, but those are the plays that could keep this game close, and for a longer amount of time. The secondary is far from solid and if I'm in South Dakota's shoes I'm going to look to exploit it for all it's worth. A consistent, disruptive pass rush will keep those chances out of reach.
Northwestern loses if… The penalty problems continue. Holding penalties on offense that change a first-and-10 to a first-and-20, late hits or roughing the passer calls that give away big chunks of yards, or anything else that hints at a lack of discipline could become an instant in-game crisis.
The bottom line: Mike Trumpy continues to show that he has no lingering injury problems, giving the ground game a powerful Mr. Inside in addition to the speedy Mr. Outside, Venric Mark. Fans and media begin marveling at Northwestern's balanced skill sets among the rushers as well as the Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian tandem at quarterback. This will be followed by open debate as to whether the Wildcats can be ranked above 20th or will merely break into the Top 25 when the next week's poll results are released.
Prediction: Northwestern 38 South Dakota 17
Danny "Boy" Moran
Northwestern wins if… They can get decent production from either Mark or Trumpy. Mark is coming off an injury and Trumpy has had one big performance since his torn ACL.
Northwestern loses if… Must we do this?
The bottom line: This is Northwestern's reward for opening the season against three BCS conference teams. Now they just need to stay healthy. If either Mark or Trumpy can establish the run game early, Colter and Siemian will pick apart the South Dakota defense.
Prediction: Northwestern 35 South Dakota 10
Larry "J.C." Watts
Northwestern wins if… It doesn't take the Coyotes lightly. The Wildcats have historically struggled against weaker nonconference teams and need to overcome this hurdle. This is a perfect time for Northwestern's offense to establish both the pass and run game without revealing too much from the playbook. Defensively, if the Cat run defense continues its trend this year, it should be dominant.
Northwestern loses if… It takes this team lightly and becomes its own worst enemy. The Cats cannot afford to keep falling behind the chains.
The bottom line: Northwestern dominates on both sides of the ball. This could set the stage for the first Zack Oliver sighting.
Prediction: Jeff Budzien goes from hero to more of a spectator. Northwestern 35 South Dakota 10
Louie "Big Ern" Vaccher
Northwestern wins if… It holds onto the football and doesn't give up any big special teams plays.
Northwestern loses if… The players buy into the notion that they can just show up on Saturday and win. They will still have to execute their game plan.
The bottom line: Northwestern needs to seize an early lead to wipe out South Dakota's hopes for an upset. Then, the Cats can work on things like the red-zone offense, building depth and throwing in a couple wrinkles for Big Ten defensive coordinators to worry about.
Prediction: Northwestern 37 South Dakota 9