The road to another Big Ten West title is littered with tough challenges
The Northwestern Wildcats shocked the world in 2018. They posted a better-than-expected 9-5 overall record, won the Big Ten West Division title for the first time in history, played in their first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, and had a nationally televised audience at their disposal when they came from behind to defeat Utah in the Holiday Bowl on New Year's Eve. Their performance last year took the program new heights and set new standards in Evanston. While a repeat (or better) in 2019 would be ideal, it'll be a lot easier said than done.
This year's Wildcats campaign includes another loaded Big Ten slate, a rematch with a Pac-12 power, with a couple of other non-conference games tucked in between. While Northwestern will be breaking in some new talent in 2019, they'll also have some dependable veterans to lean on. But let there be no doubt that head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was reportedly linked to the Green Bay Packers' vacancy earlier this year, will have even more eyes on him.
12. Nov. 6 vs. UMass
The Minutemen are 0-4 all-time against the Big Ten and have never had a winning season since moving up to the FBS level back in 2012. I don't see too much difficulty for Northwestern in this game.
11. Sept. 14 vs. UNLV
The Wildcats have never lost to the Rebels (2-0) and Pat Fitzgerald also is unbeaten against the Mountain West Conference (also 2-0). UNLV has posted five consecutive losing seasons, and the Rebels have lost their last two games against Big Ten opponents (Ohio State in 2017, Michigan in '15) by a combined 54 points.
10. Nov. 2 at Indiana
Pat Fitzgerald is 6-1 lifetime against the Hoosiers (only loss in came in 2008) who went 0-3 against the Big Ten West last season (outscored 108-68).
9. Nov. 30 at Illinois
Northwestern hasn't lost to Illinois since 2014. And since then the Wildcats have won each of the last four meetings by a combined score of 132-58, the Illini have had some slight issues with recruiting and transfers, and they're expected to be without their best defensive player, end Bobby Roundtree, this season. The Illini, however, do have home-field advantage this time and three of their four victories in 2018 came in Champaign.
8. Nov. 23 vs. Minnesota
While the Wildcats have won three of their last four meetings with the Golden Gophers, P.J. Fleck's team is on the rise. Minnesota won four of its final six games last year to earn a spot in last December's Quick Lane Bowl in which the Gophers sent now-retired Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson off with a loss in his final game. This gave Minnesota its first winning season since 2016, and plenty of momentum and energy heading into '19.
7. Nov. 9 vs. Purdue
Northwestern opened its 2018 schedule by going to West Lafayette and walking out with a huge win. But what doesn't get talked about as much is how the Boilermakers shut out the Wildcats 10-0 in the second half and could have pulled off the comeback were it not for the since-retired Jeremy Larkin literally running out the clock in the fourth quarter. NU is the home team this year and has won the last two meetings with Purdue at Ryan Field. But a healthy Elijah Sindelar under center for Purdue this season could be the difference-maker.
6. Oct. 5 at Nebraska
Last year's overtime thriller in Evanston was just a small sample of what Scott Frost's team is capable of doing in the future. The future could wind up arriving this season as Frost has had a full offseason to fully implement his system. And with sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez returning for the Cornhuskers (2,617 passing yards, 629 rushing yards, 25 total touchdowns), the possibilities are endless. This game will be played in Lincoln where Northwestern has won three of the last four meetings.
5. Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State
Winning a fourth straight game over the Spartans will be easier said than done. Clayton Thorson is no longer Northwestern's quarterback and he was a big reason why NU has had so much success against MSU (966 passing yards, 8 TDs in three games). Whether Hunter Johnson or TJ Green gets the starting nod, it'll be unrealistic to expect them to have the same type of success.
4. Sept. 28 at Wisconsin
Last year's upset win over the Badgers at home played a crucial role in the Wildcats winning the Big Ten West. But the series returns to Madison this year where the Cardiac Cats have lost two of their last three (outscored 75-43). Wisconsin once again brings a tough rushing attack led by Jonathan Taylor (4,171 yards and 29 touchdowns over the last two seasons), who'll be looking to run wild in front of the home crowd.
3. Aug. 31 at Stanford
Some say that Northwestern's resurgence over the last few years began when they defeated the Cardinal in their 2015 season opener. The Wildcats are 3-1 against the Pac-12 under Pat Fitzgerald, but this game will commence from Palo Alto where Stanford has posted an 11-2 record over the last two seasons.
2. Oct. 18 vs. Ohio State
Under Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are winless against the Buckeyes. They are 0-6 including last year's Big Ten Championship Game, losing by a combined score of 266-101. They'd be hard pressed to pull off an upset here, but OSU will have some new faces that lack game experience, to some degree.
1. Oct. 26 vs. Iowa
It wouldn't surprise me if the road to the division title once again goes through the Hawkeyes. While the Wildcats have won three straight against Iowa, the Hawkeyes have gone 1-1 in their last two games in Evanston and have outscored NU 57-27 in those meetings. Expect this to be another hard-fought battle.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.