Step by step

The first month of Northwestern's schedule follows a pretty clear pattern: Each opponent, without fail, is a bit tougher than the last. From Towson to Eastern Michigan to Syracuse to Minnesota, Purple Reign looks at the steadily increasing difficulty of the Wildcats' first four opponents.

The first-ever Purple Reign visualization exercise:

Imagine, if you will, a line graph. On this graph is a sloped line that starts with a negligible Y-axis value and – as it moves along the X-axis – ascends steadily upward. Does that make sense? So the line begins with a value of darn-near 0, and from that point it crawls upward, consistent and unabated.

I'm not practicing to become an algebra teacher. Instead, I write about this slope because it represents rather well the first four weeks of Northwestern's football schedule. If the Y-axis represents the difficulty value of an opponent, and the X-axis represents time, then there is a correlative relationship* between the difficulty and the time: Invariably, they increase together. The more time that passes, the more difficult the opponent gets.

* In journalism classes they tell you that you have to shelve atypical words and phrases for the sake of readability. Fair enough, especially in sports writing; a lot of the time sports fans aren't the most literarily inclined. But here at Purple Reign, with an audience comprised almost entirely of Northwestern grads, I reckon there's a higher "median vocabulary" than, say, for the Chicago Tribune. Hence, I feel terms like "correlative relationship" are fair game.

Think about it: At home against Towson, then at home against Eastern Michigan, then on the road at Syracuse and then home against Minnesota. There's a pretty clear crescendo there. From Week 1 to Week 4, the opponents, without fail or even much room for debate, get increasingly difficult.

Now, that's not utterly unique. Northwestern doesn't own a monopoly on this type of schedule; a bunch of Big Ten teams seem to have embraced the ascending-difficulty model for early-season games.

But the way it worked out, with the late addition of Towson and a conference-opener against Minnesota, this is pretty stark. Other teams in the conference don't have such a clear, unequivocal, well-defined build-up to conference play.

Iowa, for instance, will go Northern Iowa > Iowa State > Arizona > Penn State. Sure, you could say that's an steady increase in difficulty, with a second-tier in-state school, a BCS conference rival, a respectable Pac-10 foe and then a Top 5 team. But is Iowa State really better than Northern Iowa? The Cyclones have won two games the last two seasons, so it'd be easy to argue that for Iowa, Week 2 represented a bit of a reprieve. (Especially after UNI nearly pulled the stunner in Iowa City. That was certainly no Towson.)

Others…Penn State will start out Akron > Syracuse > Temple > Iowa. That's a bit of a roller-coaster if you think – like Purple Reign does – that Syracuse is better than Temple.

Purdue, meanwhile, played Toledo, then went to Oregon, and is now at home for games against Northern Iowa and Notre Dame. The way PR sees it, that's soft > really hard > soft > really hard.

So on and so on.

To again invoke the graph: The curve of these teams' schedules is not as clear-cut as Northwestern's. It'd be pretty asinine to claim that Towson is not easier than Eastern Michigan – really, it'd be asinine to claim that Towson is not easier than some high school teams. And it'd be nearly as hard to say that Eastern is not easier than a game at Syracuse, and that the Gophers – they of the 2-0 record this season and 8-4 record last season – aren't better than the first three.

There are any number of criteria to choose from to make the case for Towson's ineptitude, which set the bar oh-so low for this ever-increasing difficulty. The Tigers won just three games in each of the past two season, and they were picked to finish dead-last in the CAA. (And if you don't know what CAA stands for, well, that's part of the point.) They lost five straight games to cap off a horrid 2008 campaign, and even their last good season – 7-4 in 2006 – had brow-furrowing mishaps. Like, say, a 38-3 loss to James Madison.

Obviously, then, EMU is better than Towson. Yeah, the Eagles, like Towson, made a coaching change this season. But the fact that they threw a scare into the Cats – even if NU's fumbles and interceptions had a lot to do with that – showed that they are at least competent.

Not as competent, though, as Syracuse. Now, we'll have to look past the records, but once we do, it is pretty clear that Syracuse marks the hardest of NU's first three opponents.

Sure, the Orange was 5-19 the past two seasons, and 10-37 the past four. The Orange is also 0-2 this season after losses to Minnesota and Penn State,* bringing its win total over the past 49 games to 10. That, of course, is pitiful.

* Can someone tell me what the heck Syracuse was doing with its schedule this year? Seriously, three Big Ten teams to open the season? Three 2008 bowl teams? Um, why? What's the point? When your program is struggling as much as that one, why would you schedule three BCS conference teams to start the season? Sure, maybe Syracuse didn't know that Minnesota and Northwestern would be on the rise when they inked these home-and-homes, but they should have thought about it. This is the type of thing that makes you wonder if it's more than losses that caused Greg Robinson's ouster as head coach.

But Syracuse is still a BCS conference school with BCS conference facilities and – believe it or not – a few BCS conference players. The Orange took Minnesota to overtime and did nothing to embarrass itself at Penn State, bowing to the Nittany Lions by the (all things considered) respectable score of 28-7.

Next up after Syracuse is Minnesota, whose better-than-the-last-guy credentials are pretty clear. For starters, the Gophers beat Syracuse head-to-head in Week 1 at Syracuse. I think even Aristotle would concur that if M beats S, and S is better than E, and E is better than T, it follows than M is the best team of the lot. Other bona fides…Minnesota went to a bowl game last season and is 2-0 this season after taking care of Air Force at home last weekend.

If the graph of Northwestern's schedule went on to Week 5 and 6, then it may finally break form. Week 5 is a trek to 1-1 Purdue, which last week lost to Oregon, and Week 6 features a visit from Miami (Ohio). It is hard to tell exactly where the Boilermakers and Red Hawks fit in the pecking order of the NU's opponents – are they better than EMU and Syracuse and Minnesota? Time will tell...

The point of all this? Oh, nothing much. But it is interesting and, in theory, beneficial that NU's schedule is laid out like so. For the first month of the season, each week's opponent is discernibly (but not appreciably) better than the last. Another visual, aside from the graph, could have been a set of stairs that – barring slip-ups – leads to a 4-0 record. Until later in the fall, there is no huge jump from one week to the next, and no huge drop off either. Indeed, there are no outliers.

The consistent increase in opponent difficulty will look all the better if Northwestern's win total follows that same route.

To reach David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, please write to

Purple Wildcats Top Stories