NIU addition fearless, admirable

Northwestern added Northern Illinois to its 2014 football schedule, another impressive move for the program.

Last year, I massacred Vanderbilt for canceling its home-and-home slate with Northwestern. The Commodores killed an outstanding matchup to preserve their non-conference win total. The snub–executed through snail mail–defined everything wrong with college football scheduling.

With programs at high-level academic schools "on the rise," per what seems like every college football feature, Vandy's reputation took an understandable shot. James Franklin and his team went soft, as their 2014 schedule now includes such riveting matchups as UMass, Charleston and Old Dominion.

NU could have excused itself by adding some cupcake opponent. Instead, Jim Phillips made another courageous move by adding two-time defending MAC championship Northern Illinois. That's no pushover. Add in what should be a difficult matchup against Cal–likely to improve in Sonny Dykes' second year–and another at Notre Dame (ah!) and we're looking at one Big Ten program with its priorities in line.

"This is truly exciting time for Chicago's Big Ten team as we continue to upgrade our nonconference football schedule," Phillips said in a Northwestern release this morning. "Both Pat Fitzgerald and I have said repeatedly that Northwestern is committed to challenging itself in nonconference play, in addition to the always rigorous Big Ten slate."

It's quite the breath of fresh air. "Upgrade." "Challenging." It's another move with multiple positive effects.

First, Fitzgerald's team will only build its reputation for fearless play and fearless attitude. This spring, his players wore "5:03" shirts, representing the amount of time by which they missed recording an undefeated season. He talks about winning championships, and regardless of some struggles early on, his team is 4-0 and likely to earn a College GameDay appearance on Oct. 5.

NU should still win handily in next season's game. But recruits, players and coaches alike are drawn to the idea of beating good opponents. The in-state battle should give the program some increased exposure to local players. The current roster can remain motivated and focused against challenging teams. Better, the coaching staff can avoid something like this season, in which softer opponents like Western Michigan and Maine ostensibly made it more difficult for the team to retain momentum.

Then, there are the fans. Fitzgerald loves the fans. Rather than throw away a game week on some useless opponent (they do only once against Western Illinois), the team can generate even more hype by beating a MAC program. Say all you want about the incredibly boring Syracuse game. It, for a moment, represented the progress of this year's team. It was a blowout to take pride in.

Regardless of any season's outcome, Fitzgerald can make his program desirable. Even during the disappointing 2011 season, when the Wildcats stumbled to a 6-7 record, Fitzgerald's sideline animation and attempted comeback effort infused the team with positivity.

I respect the move made by NU athletics, one that's beneficial for so many reasons. Vanderbilt backed down. Northwestern moved up in our estimation. No challenge seems overwhelming for a team dead set on championship aspirations.

Hard to argue against that.

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