- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.
Northwestern, Aug. 31
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39) eighth year
2012 record: 10-3, 5-3 Big Ten
Returning starters: eight offense, seven defense
Offensive headliner: Running back Venric Mark returns after rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns -- enough to earn him second-team all-conference. But he also makes his mark on special teams, where he was an All-American punt returner last season.
Defensive headliner: Safety Ibraheim Campbell is an all-league candidate after posting 89 stops last year with two interceptions and a team high 12 breakups.
The skinny: Since 2008, Northwestern is 17-10 on the road. With a good chunk of talent returning from last year's team -- which won its first bowl game since 1949 -- most are projecting the Wildcats to be a preseason top 20 team ... maybe even top 15. Sonny Dykes' first game as head coach won't be easy.
Portland State, Sept. 7
Coach: Nigel Burton (12-21, fourth year)
2012 record: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky
Returning starters: six offense, five defense
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Kieran McDonagh returns at quarterback after completing 54.5 percent of his throws last year with 14 touchdowns to 13 interceptions as a freshman. He also ran 89 times for 406 and nine touchdowns and he even caught a 22-yard touchdown.
Defensive headliner: Linebacker Jaycob Shoemaker is the top returner on defense after posting 70 tackles -- including a team-high 12 for a loss -- last season.
The skinny: The Vikings have been a familiar foe to the league in recent years -- having played Oregon State, Oregon, Washington State, ASU and Washington since 2005. They lost to Cal 42-16 in 2006. After a nice 2011 season, when they went 7-4, they took a step back last season. Part of that was holes in the pass defense. Cue up the Bear Raid.
Ohio State, Sept. 14
Coach: Urban Meyer (12-0) second year
2012 record: 12-0, 8-0 Big Ten
Returning starters: nine offense, 4 defense
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Braxton Miller is going to get plenty of Heisman hype -- especially if he can keep the Buckeyes perfect. Last year he threw for 15 touchdowns and 2,039 yards ran for 13 touchdowns and 1,271 yards.
Defensive headliner: Cornerback Bradley Roby is considered one of the best in the country at his position. He broke up 17 passes last year with two interceptions and was third with 63 tackles.
The skinny: The Buckeyes will enter the season likely as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country. They ran the table in 2012 -- including a late fourth-quarter touchdown to beat the Bears in Columbus. The schedule sets up nicely for them to make another run at perfection -- and possibly a BCS championship.
Thoughts: Dykes knew it wasn't going to be easy when he took this job -- and this nonconference schedule, save Portland State, is vicious. He'll get two top 20 teams -- and potentially the No. 1 team in the country -- in his first three weeks. Throw in a quarterback who will be getting his first collegiate playing time and a defense transitioning to a new scheme and it could make for a couple of long Saturdays. Then again, they did give Ohio State a run last season and they get all three games at home. At least they get a whole week off before traveling to Oregon to start league play in the 28th. A 1-2 record seems the most reasonable. Beating either Big Ten team would be a massive confidence boost and 3-0 would send shockwaves through the rankings. 0-3 would be a disaster. The Bears aren't exactly lacking in talent -- and Dykes' system has shown it can work. At question is whether or not Cal is mature enough to handle such a demanding schedule so early in this time of transition.