Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, May 21, 2015

Northwestern is coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons after going to five bowls in a row. It?s time for the Wildcats to get back on track.

[ MORE: Get all of Tom Dienhart's 2015 schedule analysis posts ]

Pat Fitzgerald-who is entering his 10th season at the helm of his alma mater–will have one of his most talented teams yet in his efforts to restore NU into a contender, but questions loom on offense at quarterback, wideout and along the line. Plus, the schedule is filled with hurdles.

Here is a detailed look at Northwestern?s to-do list, which features eight bowl teams.

Toughest non-conference game: vs. Stanford, Sept. 5. Duke, which has gone to three bowls in succession, will be tough. But let?s go with the season-opening visit from Stanford on Sept. 5. David Shaw?s Cardinal has gone to six bowls in a row, continuing the mojo set in motion by Jim Harbaugh. Stanford typically is a tough, physical team that doesn?t beat itself. The offense is loaded with vets, while the defense is retooling. This will be a great measuring stick for Northwestern.

Toughest conference game: at Wisconsin, Nov. 21. This trip in the second-to-last game of the season will be rugged. The Badgers arguably will be the best team in the Big Ten West this season under new coach Paul Chryst. But the Wildcats beat Wisconsin last season, 20-14, in Evanston and are 5-4 in the last nine games vs. UW. However, NU hasn?t won in Madison since 2000, when it took a wild 47-44 triumph.

Who they don?t play: The Wildcats catch a break by missing Ohio State and Michigan State, the Big Ten?s best teams. Also absent are Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers.

Easiest game: vs. Eastern Illinois, Sept. 12. The visit from FCS foe Eastern Illinois, which went 5-7 last year, should be relatively easy. But the Panthers traditionally are one of the nation?s better FCS programs. EIU has 15 all-time FCS playoff appearances and last went in 2013.

Toughest stretch: There is a five-game run from Oct. 3-Nov. 7 that will define the season for Northwestern. It begins with a visit from Minnesota, followed by a trip to Michigan, a visit from Iowa, a game at Nebraska and a visit from Penn State. The Wildcats need to find a way to win at least two of those games.

Factoid: NU is 1-9 in its last 10 meetings with Michigan, which it visits on Oct. 10 in a battle of coaches who were legends at their respective schools: Fitz vs. Jim Harbaugh. That one win was in Ann Arbor, a 21-14 victory in 2008. This will be the Wildcats? first trip to Michigan since 2012, as the last two meetings have been in Evanston.

Best chance to be upset: vs. Purdue, Nov. 14. Sandwiched between a home game vs. Penn State and season-ending road trips to Wisconsin and Illinois (Soldier Field), the Wildcats could find themselves looking ahead. If they aren't careful, the Boilermakers could come in to Ryan Field and hand them an unexpected loss.

Best chance to pull an upset: at Nebraska, Oct. 24. Never count out Northwestern when it plays Nebraska. This has been one of the most fun matchups in the Big Ten in recent years. NU is just 1-3 vs. the Cornhuskers since the latter joined the Big Ten, losing the last three. But the games-for the most part-have been close. NU won 28-25 in 2011 and lost 29-28 in 2012; 27-24 in 2013 and 38-17 last year. The 2013 game featured the iconic last-second TD heave from Nebraska?s Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp.

Must win: vs. Iowa, Oct. 17. If Northwestern wants to compete in the Big Ten West, it needs to find a way to beat Iowa. This is a Hawkeyes? program that is seemingly stuck in neutral. Alas, NU has lost the last two meetings-both in Iowa City. The Wildcats won the last time Iowa came to Evanston in 2012, taking a 28-17 triumph.

Bye week: This comes after eight games, as NU is off for Halloween. The timing is good, as the bye breaks up the aforementioned tough five-game stretch. The Wildcats play at Nebraska going into the off week and come back at home vs. Penn State.

2015 Northwestern Schedule
Sept. 5 Stanford
Sept. 12 Eastern Illinois
Sept. 19 at Duke
Sept. 26 Ball State
Oct. 3 Minnesota
Oct. 10 at Michigan
Oct. 17 Iowa
Oct. 24 at Nebraska
Oct. 31 OFF
Nov. 7 Penn State
Nov. 14 Purdue
Nov. 21 at Wisconsin
Nov. 28 at Illinois (Soldier Field)


About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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.

And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.