The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.
It may be ridiculously early, but we're examining the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.
Must-win game: Minnesota, Nov. 18.
Northwestern has lost to the Golden Gophers in three of the past four seasons. The lone win in that time came in 2015, when the Wildcats won 10 games. It's not a one-to-one correspondence, of course; beating Minnesota won't guarantee a huge season for Pat Fitzgerald's team. But it is true that both the Gophers and Wildcats occupy some of the same space in the Big Ten West as teams good enough to contend if everything goes right. With P.J. Fleck's inexperienced club coming into Ryan Field, Northwestern needs to defend its home turf. Of course, we know what happened when Fleck brought Western Michigan into Evanston last September.
Trap game: at Maryland, Oct. 13
Perhaps the Terrapins will be good enough for this not to qualify as a trap game, if D.J. Durkin's team can build on last season's bowl bid and a successful recruiting effort. Yet Northwestern has had more recent success than Maryland and should be expected to win this crossover game. Here's the issue: The Wildcats' previous two games will be the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin and a visit from Penn State. Those will be physical, hyped-up games, and matching that intensity on the road in College Park might prove a bit difficult for the guys in purple.