Schedule analysis: Northwestern

Preseason practice is in full swing, and kickoff is just around the corner. To get you ready, we're analyzing every Big Ten team's complete 2013 schedule.

Northwestern is up next in the rundown ...

Nonconference opponents (with 2012 records)

Aug. 31: at Cal (3-9)

Sept. 7: Syracuse (8-5)

Sept. 14: Western Michigan (4-8)

Sept. 21: Maine (5-6)

Legends Division games

Oct. 19: Minnesota

Oct. 26: at Iowa

Nov. 2: at Nebraska

Nov. 16: Michigan

Nov. 23: Michigan State

Crossover games

Oct. 5: Ohio State

Oct. 12: at Wisconsin

Nov. 30: at Illinois

No plays


Penn State


Gut-check game: Ohio State will be the measuring stick for a veteran Northwestern team trying to legitimize itself as a Big Ten title contender following a 10-win season in 2012. The Wildcats will be favored in all of their non-league games, so there's a good chance both teams enter Ryan Field at 4-0, setting up the most anticipated home game of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Ohio State hasn't just dominated the series (59-14-1); the Buckeyes have pulverized Northwestern in many of the games. The teams meet for the first time since 2008.

Trap game: After opening league play with Leaders Division heavyweights Ohio State and Wisconsin, Northwestern returns home to face Minnesota. The Wildcats have won three straight and five of the past six against the Gophers, but Jerry Kill's squad should be improved in Year 3, especially along both lines. Northwestern needs to secure a win at home before heading back out on the road for consecutive games.

Snoozer: Northwestern has a decent non-league schedule, but Maine doesn't do much to move the needle. The Bears have had losing records in three of the past four seasons. Their only win against an FBS opponent came against Mississippi State in 2004.

Noncon challenge: It's between Syracuse and Cal, and while the Orange were the better team in 2012, Cal could be the trickier game. Northwestern must visit Berkeley and play a late-night contest (9:30 p.m. CT kickoff) against a Bears squad that is somewhat of a mystery under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. Although Cal is extremely young, Jeff Tedford left some talent behind and Dykes' up-tempo offense could test Northwestern.

Telltale stretch: There are really two of them, although the second carries more weight in Northwestern's quest to reach Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. The Wildcats open Big Ten play against Ohio State (Oct. 5) and Wisconsin (Oct. 12) -- at least one has held a share of the Big Ten title every year since 2004. They then open November with division challenges against Nebraska (Nov. 2), Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23). After blowing late leads in close losses to Michigan and Nebraska last season, Northwestern will seek a different result in games that could decide the division champion.

Analysis: Northwestern's Big Ten schedule undoubtedly gets tougher in 2013, as Ohio State returns for the first time since 2008 and Wisconsin is back for the first time since 2010. The Wildcats don't play Penn State, but they miss both Indiana and Purdue, two of the league's weaker teams last season. There are few gimmes in league play, which makes games like Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois virtual must-wins if Northwestern intends to reach the next level it referenced throughout the offseason.

The non-league schedule is similar to last year's, perhaps a little weaker as both Cal and Syracuse -- along with Western Michigan -- went through head coaching changes. If Northwestern can at least split its first two Big Ten contests, it should enter November with a chance to make noise in the division. Fitzgerald's teams typically perform much better in November (15-9) than October (12-17), so a good start to league play is critical.

More schedule analysis

Legends: Iowa | Michigan | Minnesota | Nebraska

Leaders: Purdue | Penn State | Illinois | Ohio State