My team-by-team breakdown of each Big Ten schedule continues with the Northwestern Wildcats.
Nonconference opponents (with 2010 records)
Sept. 3: at Boston College (7-6)
Sept. 10: Eastern Illinois (2-9)
Sept. 17: at Army (7-6)
Nov. 12: Rice (4-8)
Legends division games
Oct. 8: Michigan
Oct. 15: at Iowa
Nov. 5: at Nebraska
Nov. 19: Minnesota
Nov. 26: Michigan State
Oct. 1: at Illinois (protected)
Oct. 22: Penn State
Oct. 29: at Indiana
Gut-check game: Michigan. Northwestern has performed well on the road and in early kickoffs under coach Pat Fitzgerald. But when the spotlight shines on the Wildcats, they seem to struggle. They host Denard Robinson and Michigan at night in a game that pairs the Big Ten's top two quarterbacks (Robinson and Dan Persa). Northwestern could enter this game anywhere from 5-0 to 3-2, but these are the types of matchups the Wildcats need to start winning. They also must get accustomed to playing under the lights because their two games after Michigan also take place at night.
Trap game: At Indiana. The trip to Bloomington takes place after three consecutive night games and before a crucial Legends division trip to Nebraska on Nov. 5. Although Indiana has played Northwestern tough over the years, this is a cross-division game against an opponent most will project at the bottom of the conference. Indiana's staff has familiarity with Northwestern as head coach Kevin Wilson and co-offensive coordinator Kevin Johns both have spent time with the Wildcats.
Snoozer: Eastern Illinois. Northwestern has an attractive home schedule that includes two night games (Michigan and Penn State) and should help boost attendance. But it'll be tough to get excited about this Week 2 matchup against an FCS opponent that went 2-9 last season. Expect a small crowd and not much buzz in Ryan Field, although Persa's first home game provides some intrigue.
Non-con challenge: At Boston College. Northwestern will be tested right away in the season opener. Boston College typically boasts a strong defense, and this will mark Persa's first game since suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon Nov. 13. The Eagles won their final five games of last season and, like Northwestern, seem to play well in close games. While Boston College lacks a dynamic offense, Northwestern's defense has a lot to prove after the way it finished the 2010 campaign. Northwestern's Week 3 trip to Army also could be tricky.
Key stretch: October has been an erratic month for Northwestern in recent years, and the Wildcats will be challenged this fall. They open October against an Illinois team that seems to be on the rise. Northwestern then plays three consecutive night games -- Michigan, Iowa and Penn State -- before wrapping up the month at Indiana. I could see the Wildcats finishing anywhere from 4-1 to 1-4 during this stretch.
Analysis: Northwestern undoubtedly gets a break on the crossover games as it misses both Ohio State and Wisconsin and hosts Penn State at Ryan Field. The division schedule, however, isn't easy as the Wildcats must visit both Nebraska and Iowa, although they've won their past three contests at Kinnick Stadium. Fitzgerald's teams typically fare well on the road, which is good given the two nonconference games away from Evanston. The big key will be surviving October and getting to November with a chance to make some noise. Northwestern could really benefit from playing its final three games (Rice, Minnesota, Michigan State) at home.
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