Tuesday, April 3, 2007

It's football season (2007 preview: non-conference schedule)

With Florida beating Ohio State for the basketball national championship Monday night, it's now just 282 days until Florida beats Ohio State for the football national championship.

Or something like that.

Point is, from Columbus to Gainesville and all the way to Evanston, football season essentially is here.

And in Evanston, it's pretty welcome. For many reasons.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald's redemption year. Tyrell Sutton's revenge year. C.J. Bacher's starting year. And so on.

But if anything sticks out about NU football in 2007, it's something even simpler: the schedule. And, particularly, its non-conference slate, the Wildcats' easiest in recent memory.

Let's break it down, opponent by opponent.
  • Sept. 1 vs. Northeastern

Northwestern vs. Northeastern. Get it? Well, that's about all that'll be interesting about this matchup between the Cats and the Division I-AA Huskies. Sure, NU had that dreadful 34-17 loss to I-AA New Hampshire last season, but at least New Hampshire was a playoff team in 2006. Northeastern went 5-6. Still, the Huskies bring back their top two passers, rushers and receivers, for whatever it's worth.

  • Sept. 8 vs. Nevada

The Wolf Pack beat NU 31-21 last year in Reno. But that was with quarterback Jeff Rowe, running back Robert Hubbard and wide receiver Caleb Spencer. All are gone, and an already mediocre Nevada team (which went 8-5 as a member of the weak WAC and lost to lame duck Larry Coker's Miami in its bowl game) must replace these three contributors, and then some.

  • Sept. 15 vs. Duke

Duke is a real threat to NU. No, not in this game. In the loss column. The Blue Devils have dropped 22 games in a row, and are one winless season shy of matching the Cats' 34-game losing streak. If Duke drops its first two (at home against UConn and at Virginia), NU would be a tad embarrassed to lose to such a dismal team -- and to allow its streak to live on.

  • Oct. 20 vs. Eastern Michigan (at Ford Field, Detroit)

Time might be running out on Jeff Genyk. The Eagles are 9-25 since the former NU assistant took over the Eagles' head coaching job, including an abysmal 1-11 last season (with a 14-6 loss to NU in Evanston). So for a "road" game, this isn't as treacherous as NU's previous trips to TCU, Arizona State or even Nevada. Still, NU is 0-1 at Ford Field, dropping the 2003 Motor City Bowl 28-24 to Bowling Green.

... In short, 4-0 isn't just possible here. It's expected. These teams went 9-28 against Division I-AA opponents last season -- and eight of those wins belonged to Nevada.

But remember this: The last time NU went undefeated in non-conference play was 1963, when Ara Parseghian's Cats won both their non-Big Ten matchups en route to a 5-4 finish.

Coming next: An analysis of NU's conference schedule, which also sets up well for the Cats.

--Patrick Dorsey