Our 2012 schedule analysis series has reached its conclusion. Go ahead and shed a few tears. But not before perusing the slate awaiting the Northwestern Wildcats this fall.
Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Sept. 1: at Syracuse (5-7)
Sept. 8: Vanderbilt (6-7)
Sept. 15: Boston College (4-8)
Sept. 22: South Dakota (6-5)
Legends Division games
Oct. 13: at Minnesota
Oct. 20: Nebraska
Oct. 27: Iowa
Nov. 10: at Michigan
Nov. 17: at Michigan State
Sept. 29: Indiana
Oct. 6: at Penn State
Nov. 24: Illinois (protected)
Gut-check game: Illinois appears to be working feverishly to make the Land of Lincoln battle a real rivalry, and the Illini have won two straight in the series. Northwestern can't let that streak reach three, especially with this year's game coming on Senior Day in Evanston. Both teams could be playing for bowl positioning -- or just plain bowl eligibility -- on Nov. 24.
Trap game: The Oct. 13 trip to Minnesota is sandwiched between a road contest at Penn State and a visit from Nebraska. The Wildcats can't really afford to look past any Legends Division opponents, but the Gophers -- who won both of their Big Ten games at home in 2011 -- could be lying in wait for this one. Minnesota also has a bye week before Northwestern comes to the Twin Cities, giving it two weeks to prepare.
Snoozer: After opening up with three straight BCS AQ conference opponents, the Wildcats deserve a break. They'll get one with the FCS Coyotes on Sept. 22. South Dakota lost by 49 points to Wisconsin last year. Wake us up when this one is over.
Non-con challenge: None of the first three games looks particularly easy. The Syracuse game is on the road. Boston College was bad last year but returns 17 starters and should be improved. Vanderbilt, believe it or not, might present the toughest challenge. Second-year coach James Franklin took the Commodores bowling last season and brings back 15 starters this season. And, hey, if Northwestern wins this home game, it can say it beat an SEC team in 2012.
Telltale stretch: The final three weeks could very well make or break this season for the Wildcats. They draw the unenviable task of playing Michigan and Michigan State -- arguably the top two teams in the Big Ten -- on the road in consecutive weeks. They lost to both Michigan schools by a combined 32 points a year ago. And if Northwestern is still in one piece after those two difficult games, it gets to finish up against their top rival in the league. At least the Wildcats have a bye week Nov. 3 to gear up for the tough stretch drive.
Analysis: Northwestern has to be considered a dark horse candidate at best in the Legends Division. This schedule will test it both at the beginning and the end. Though none of the first three nonconference opponents are Top 25 teams to start the year, all are capable of beating the Wildcats, who have no time to ease Kain Colter into the full-time starting quarterback job. Northwestern catches a break in its crossover games by missing Ohio State, Wisconsin and an improved Purdue, and it gets Iowa and Nebraska -- two teams it has proved it can beat -- at home. Getting off to a good start will be critically important, as will be surviving that brutal finish. There's not a ton of margin for error here if Pat Fitzgerald's team wants to make its fifth straight bowl game.
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