- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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We're now only eight weeks away from the opening weekend of college football. Huzzah. To get you geared up, we're taking a closer look at the list of nonconference opponents on each Big Ten team's slate this fall.
Today, we turn to Northwestern.
at California, Aug. 31
Coach: Sonny Dykes (first season; 22-15 at Louisiana Tech)
2012 record: 3-9, 2-7 Pac-12
Offensive headliner: The Bears lost their leading passer, rusher and receiver off last season's team. But Brendan Bigelow, who averaged 9.8 yards per carry and had a big game at Ohio State, could be ready to post huge numbers in Dykes' offense.
Defensive headliner: Big Ten fans will recognize linebacker Khairi Fortt's name. He transferred last year from Penn State, but sat out with a knee injury. He should start this season.
The skinny: Jeff Tedford had a nice run with the Bears before seemingly losing his touch in the later years. Cal brought in Dykes fresh off a terrific season at Louisiana Tech, and he will install the Air Raid offense that should fit in well in the wide-open Pac-12. Andy Buh, who was Wisconsin's linebackers coach last season, is the defensive coordinator and will lead the switch to a 4-3. The biggest issue is at quarterback, where freshmen Zach Kline and Jared Goff, and junior Austin Hinder are battling for the right to lead Dykes' quarterback-friendly attack.
Syracuse, Sept. 7
Coach: Scott Shafer (first season)
2012 record: 8-5, 5-2 Big East
Offensive headliner: Running back Jerome Smith had 1,171 yards on 227 carries last season, though he scored just three touchdowns. He ran for 152 yards against West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl win.
Defensive headliner: Weakside linebacker Dyshawn Davis had 14 tackles for loss and 69 total stops last season. He also added an interception and two fumble recoveries.
The skinny: This is a big transition year for the Orange, who saw coach Doug Marrone bolt for the NFL's Buffalo Bills in the offseason and now head into their first year of ACC play. Shafer, the one-time Michigan defensive coordinator, takes over a team that lost 10 starters, including star quarterback Ryan Nassib. The quarterback race remains open, and Syracuse expects to lean heavily on its running game this season.
Western Michigan, Sept. 14
Coach: P.J. Fleck (first season)
2012 record: 4-8, 2-6 MAC
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen started six games for the injured Alex Carder last season and inherits the full-time gig this season. He threw for 1,825 yards and 15 touchdowns in his understudy role a year ago.
Defensive headliner: Senior Johnnie Simon will play outside linebacker after being a two-time All-MAC selection at safety. He had 103 tackles and an interception last season.
The skinny: The Broncos fired Bill Cubit, who went on to become Illinois' new offensive coordinator. In his place, they hired 32-year old P.J. Fleck, the youngest coach in the FBS. He's a fast-talking, hyper-energetic guy, but Fleck has never even been a coordinator before. Will he be in over his head? After a string of mostly uninspiring seasons, Western Michigan feels it's worth the risk.
Maine, Sept. 21
Coach: Jack Cosgrove (111-118, 21st season)
2012 record: 5-6, 4-4 Colonial Athletic (FCS)
Offensive headliner: Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski threw for 2,364 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.
Defensive headliner: Senior defensive lineman Michael Cole played in only five games because of injury, but managed seven sacks. Two of those sacks came against Boston College, and he needs just seven more to break the all-time school-record.
The skinny: After reaching the quarterfinals of the 2011 FCS playoffs, the Black Bears slipped to a losing record in 2012. They have pretty good experience throughout the roster, but must replace a trio of three-year starters on the offensive line.
The Wildcats arguably had a tougher schedule last season, when they opened with Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College. If you believe in the power of coaching stability, Northwestern should have a huge advantage in its first three games, as all three opponents are breaking in new leaders. The first two weeks could prove tricky on the players' body clocks, as the opener at Cal is a 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time kickoff. But both the Golden Bears and Syracuse will also have new starting quarterbacks, which should help Northwestern's improving defense. Get through those first two games, and the Wildcats should have no real problems starting the season 4-0 for the second straight year. The schedule should be enough to get the team ready for Big Ten play without being overly demanding.
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