Veteran Wildcats face challenging 2013 lineup

Most every key component from last year’s team that went 10-3 and won the school’s first bowl since the Stone Age — OK, the 1948 season —  is back. Good, because this schedule is a doozy. In fact, starting 2-0 won’t be a given, with a trip to Cal and visit from Syracuse, which lost a crazy 42-41 game at home to the Wildcats last season, on tap to open the season. Big Ten schools switched cross-division foes this season, and no school had a less advantageous swap then NU.

The lowlights: The Wildcats picked up Ohio State and Wisconsin while bidding adieu to Indiana and Purdue. Still, there is a chance NU could be 6-2 entering November. If Northwestern wins the Legends Division, it will have earned it.

Let’s dive in.

Toughest non-conference game: NU hasn’t played Cal since beating the Golden Bears in the Rose Bowl after the 1948 season—which before last season was the Wildcats’ only bowl victory. Well, looky here: Northwestern opens at Cal on Aug. 31. And it will be daunting. The Golden Bears have a new coach in Sonny Dykes, whose high-flying offense is tough to prep for. Ask Illinois’ Tim Beckman, whose Illini got shredded by Dykes’s Louisiana Tech squad last season. On the heels of that junket to Berkeley, the Wildcats come home to play Syracuse—which, like Cal, is breaking in a new coach. No Big Ten team has a tougher 1-2 punch to start the season. Good thing this is a veteran NU squad.

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Toughest conference game: You could go any number of directions here. The Big Ten opener vs. Ohio State on Oct. 5 … the trip to Wisconsin the next week … a visit from Michigan on Nov. 16. But let’s go with the game at Nebraska on Nov. 2. That tilt shapes up as a possible de facto Legends Division title game. The Wildcats won the last time they visited Lincoln, taking a 28-25 triumph in 2011. And they had the Cornhuskers beat last season in Evanston before blowing a 28-16 fourth-quarter lead and falling, 29-28.

Who they don’t play: Indiana, Purdue and Penn State are off the schedule. This could hurt Northwestern’s division title chances, as it may have been favored vs. each of those opponents had it played them this season.

Easiest game: It won’t get any easier than when FCS Maine (Maine?) comes to Evanston on Sept. 21. The Wildcats would love a rousing victory to send them into a bye week with some mojo.

[ RELATED: View all of Dienhart's 2013 Schedule Analysis archive ]

Rugged stretch: The 1-2 punch of a visit from Ohio State followed by a trip to Wisconsin to open Big Ten play is brutal. Those hands-down are the two best teams in the Leaders Division. The Buckeyes have been an especially troublesome foe. Since beating Ohio State in consecutive seasons in 1962-63, Northwestern has gone 2-33 vs.  the Buckeyes. The wins have come in 1971 and 2004, when the Wildcats took a 33-27 decision in Evanston under Randy Walker.

Interesting factoid: NU has had its way with Illinois in the old Sweet Sioux Tomahawk rivalry. The Wildcats have won three of the last five meetings and seven of the last 10. You know this makes Pat Fitzgerald delightful behind closed doors.

Best chance to be upset: The Wildcats need to be careful when Minnesota comes to Evanston on Oct. 19. Northwestern will be coming off two tough games—vs. Ohio State and at Wisconsin. NU may be beat up and looking past an improving Golden Gophers squad. Recent history favors Northwestern, which has won the last three meetings, five of the last six and 10 of the last 15.

Best chance to pull an upset: You have to like Northwestern’s chances at Nebraska on Nov. 2. But let’s go with the trip to Wisconsin on Oct. 12. The schools haven’t played since 2010. In that meeting in Madison, the Wildcats got drubbed, losing 70-23. You can bet Pat Fitzgerald will remind his team. NU hasn’t won in Madison since 2000, when it earned a share of the Big Ten title. But the Wildcats are 4-3 in the last seven meetings with the Badgers.

Must win: To have a good shot at winning the Legends Division, Northwestern needs to beat Michigan when the Wolverines visit on Nov. 16. The Wildcats lost a 38-31 overtime heartbreaker last season in Ann Arbor, as Michigan completed a miraculous 53-yard pass in the waning moments to set up a game-tying 26-yard field goal with two seconds left to force overtime. The Wolverines won it from there. Since beating Michigan back-to-back in 1995-96, Northwestern has gone 2-10 vs. the Wolverines.

Bye weeks: These are spread out well. The first one comes Sept. 28, after Northwestern has played four non-conference games. The break also will give the Wildcats extra preparation time for Ohio State’s prime-time visit on Oct. 5. The second bye comes six weeks later on Nov. 9, allowing Northwestern to set up for the final three games. And they could be big ones with a whole lot on the line, with Michigan and Michigan State visiting followed by the finale at Illinois.

Here is Northwestern’s full schedule:

Day Date Opponent
Sat. Aug. 31 at California
Sat. Sep. 7 vs. Syracuse
Sat. Sep. 14 vs. Western Michigan
Sat. Sep. 21 vs. Maine
Sat. Oct. 5 vs. 3 Ohio State
Sat. Oct. 12 at Wisconsin
Sat. Oct. 19 vs. Minnesota
Sat. Oct. 26 at Iowa
Sat. Nov. 2 at 25 Nebraska
Sat. Nov. 16 vs. 24 Michigan
Sat. Nov. 23 vs. Michigan State
Sat. Nov. 30 at Illinois

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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