Though Northwestern and California are in much different places as programs, Pat Fitzgerald thinks both teams have their own advantages heading into Saturday's season-opener.
For his Wildcats — coming off a 10-win season that saw a string of decades without a bowl win snapped — advantages lie in their preparation. Northwestern doesn't begin classes for another week, meaning in-season practice rules don't apply to the Wildcats, and the team can practice whenever they want. With the season-opener two time zones away in Northern California, the later the practice schedule the better. It's a competitive edge for sure, as the team won't be as affected by the dramatic shift in time.
"We researched our plan. We researched what we're going to have to do and how we're going to have to adjust," Fitzgerald said Monday. "You could look at the other reasons why ... The bottom line is how you play in that three-hour time period, and so because we're not in school we can take advantage of being flexible in our practice plan. If we were in school, we'd be practicing in the morning."
Another advantage Fitzgerald sees for his team comes in the weather. He pointed to the extreme weather conditions the Wildcats have opened their seasons under in years past, including heat. With Chicago-area temperatures sitting in the 80s during this week's practices (which will be held at night), the shift to the pleasant weather of California should play into Northwestern's favor.
But even though the Wildcats enter the season with a top-25 ranking and high expectations, Fitzgerald is ceding advantages to the opposing Golden Bears, a program that went 3-9 a season ago and parted ways with their head coach. They now have a new leader in Sonny Dykes, who comes in after serving as coach at Louisiana Tech. And though California is not close to being a Pac-12 juggernaut, Fitzgerald said the changes at Cal provide a distinct advantage to the home team, for the Wildcats have to not only study up on the Bears' returning players but also Dykes' schemes from Louisiana Tech.
"They've got everything on us, so they've got a definite advantage from a stand point of what their coaches have to do to teach their players, advantage to Cal," Fitzgerald said of the schools' separate edges. "From our stand point, we're very fortunate we're not in school, so the 20-hour rule doesn't kick in until Sunday morning out in California when we get on the plane to come back home. Our guys are going to take advantage of that."
History, though, could definitely be on the side of the Wildcats. Fitzgerald's teams have won their last eight openers. Asked what has contributed to that string of success, Fitzgerald had a pretty non-scientific answer.
"I'd probably say luck," he said. "It's not like we've gone out and won by large point totals.
"We found a way to win."