Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, May 16, 2017

This could be a big season in Evanston. Big. We?re talking win-the-Big-Ten-West big. Pat Fitzgerald has built a consistent force that always is competitive. But, a big breakthrough remains elusive.


Perhaps that will come in 2017 for a program led by the terrific 1-2 punch of QB Clayton Thorson and RB Justin Jackson that has helped NU go to consecutive bowls and just its second bowl win under Fitzgerald. But work needs to be done as Fitz moves into his 12th season at his alma mater. Who is the go-to wideout? Are there pass rushers? Will the linebackers be OK?

Here is a look at Northwestern?s 2017 schedule.

Toughest non-conference game: The trip to Duke on Sep. 9 for the second game of the season is dangerous. (Insert your cute academic reference here, something about calculators, mortar boards or ivory towers.) David Cutcliffe is entering his 10th season in Durham and has built a fine program, going to four bowls in a row before a 4-8 mark in 2016. This is the third meeting in a row between these two prestigious institutions, as NU has won both in 2015 and 2016. In fact, the Wildcats have won three in a row vs. the Blue Devils.

Toughest conference game: The Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Sept. 30 will be a challenge. These two teams may be the favorites to win the West. Wisconsin won last year vs. NU, but the Wildcats won two in a row before that. These teams are similar, as each can run the ball and has a nice defense. It may come down to which QB makes the most plays: Northwestern?s Clayton Thorson or UW?s Alex Hornibrook.

Who they don?t play: A break-even proposition. Northwestern catches a break by missing Michigan and Ohio State. Also off the to-do list: Indiana and Rutgers.

Easiest game: The season-opening visit from Nevada of the Mountain West should allow for a fast start. The Wolf Pack are coming off a 5-7 season and have a new coach in former Iowa defensive back Jay Norvell. Still, this is a proud Nevada program that has been to 10 bowls since 2005. Be careful, Cats.

Toughest stretch: The first four Big Ten games will be difficult. It starts with a trip to Wisconsin. That?s followed by a visit from defending Big Ten champ Penn State and then a game at Maryland, which is on the rise. Finally, NU comes home to play host to Iowa. Northwestern has lost three of the last five vs. the Badgers. The Wildcats have won the last two vs. the Nittany Lions. Before that, PSU won six in a row. Northwestern won last year at Iowa; before that, the Hawkeyes won three in a row.

Best chance to be upset: Northwestern needs to be careful when Minnesota visits on Nov. 18 in the second-to-last game of the season. The Gophers have a new leader and loads of mojo behind coach P.J. Fleck. And Minnesota has won three of the last four meetings. Fleck needs a new quarterback and has holes to fill in the secondary, but he has talent. And a bowl trip may be on the line this late in the season for the Gophers.

Best chance to pull an upset: Don?t be shocked if Northwestern waltzes into Lincoln, Neb., on Nov. 4 and beats the Cornhuskers. The Wildcats won the last time they visited Memorial Stadium in 2015. They also won at Nebraska in 2011, making Northwestern 2-1 in Lincoln. Both of these teams have their sights set on winning the West, so it should be a fun clash in what has become one of the better rivalries in the Big Ten West.

Must win: If Northwestern wants to win the West, it probably is going to need to win the finale at Illinois on Nov. 25. The Wildcats have won two in a row and four of the last five vs. the Fighting Illini. The teams last met in Champaign in 2013-won by NU-after the 2015 contest was held in Chicago?s Soldier Field. Illinois last beat NU in Champaign in 2011.

Bye week: This comes on Sept. 23, after Northwestern has played its three non-conference games. And, you have to like the Wildcats? chances to be 3-0 after opening vs. Nevada, at Duke and vs. Bowling Green. The time off will give NU time to prep for a tough start to Big Ten action, which commences with a trip to Wisconsin and is followed by a visit from Penn State.

Sept. 2 Nevada
Sept. 9 at Duke
Sept. 16 Bowling Green
Sept. 23 OFF
Sept. 30 at Wisconsin
Oct. 7 Penn State
Oct. 14 at Maryland
Oct. 21 Iowa
Oct. 28 Michigan State
Nov. 4 at Nebraska
Nov. 11 Purdue
Nov. 18 Minnesota
Nov. 25 at Illinois