Schedule analysis: Northwestern

Opening weekend in college football is just five weeks away. Yay. We're we're peeking ahead and breaking down every Big Ten team's 2014 schedule to get you even more geeked up.

Batting third in our series: The Northwestern Wildcats

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Cal (1-11)

Sept. 6: Northern Illinois (12-2)

Sept. 20: Western Illinois (4-8)

Nov. 15: at Notre Dame (9-4)

West Division games

Oct. 4: Wisconsin

Oct. 11: at Minnesota

Oct. 18: Nebraska

Nov. 1: at Iowa

Nov. 22: at Purdue

Nov. 29: Illinois

Crossover games

Sept. 27: at Penn State

Nov. 8: Michigan

No plays



Michigan State

Ohio State


Gut-check game: Nebraska. The Wildcats stunned the Huskers in Lincoln in their first meeting as Big Ten teams in 2011. But the past two years of this series have left Northwestern shellshocked. Taylor Martinez engineered an epic fourth-quarter comeback in Evanston in 2012, and of course, Nebraska won on that Hail Mary last year. Pat Fitzgerald's team has to find a way to finish off Big Red better this year at home, or else the path to a potential West Division title gets much more difficult.

Trap game: Northern Illinois doesn't have Jordan Lynch anymore, but this is a strong program that has won at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons. The Huskies, who won at Iowa last year, would love nothing more than to beat their in-state neighbors to the East. And Northwestern will be coming off a potential track meet in the opener vs. Cal.

Snoozer: You certainly can't find much fault in Northwestern's nonconference schedule overall. But when the Western Illinois game arrives, we'll definitely be flipping channels.

Noncon challenge: Wildcats fans have been looking forward to playing Notre Dame again since their team pulled off the upset in South Bend in 1995. The game finally arrives this fall, but it won't be in an easy spot. Not only does Northwestern go on the road (albeit a short trip), the game comes right in the middle of November when Big Ten races are at their most intense. In fact, the Cats play Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. No small task, that.

Analysis: Credit goes to Northwestern for once again assembling a challenging schedule. It's one of the few schools willing to play two Power 5 conference teams (or at least the equivalent, in Notre Dame's case) in the same season, and Cal should be improved over last year's disaster. Throw in one of the most dangerous mid-major programs in the country, and that should make for a strong SOS. The Wildcats should be considered a dark horse in the West Division since they can't suffer all the bad luck they experienced in 2013 for a second straight year. But drawing Michigan and Penn State as crossovers is tougher on paper than what fellow West contenders Iowa and Wisconsin face, and looping Notre Dame into that November mix increases the degree of difficulty. Still, if the team can survive the grind, it gets a relatively light finish with Purdue and Illinois. There's a decent chance more will be on the line for this program in the final weeks of 2014 than there was a year ago.