Northwestern has been in back-to-back bowl games, this coming after a two-year absence from postseason play. As Pat Fitzgerald looks to keep the program on an upward trajectory in his 12th season at the helm of the Wildcats, he’ll have to navigate a Big Ten schedule that, in addition to the annual West division opponents, will force Northwestern to host the league champions from each of the past two seasons in Penn State (2016) and Michigan State (2015).
The non-conference portion is three-and-out through the season’s first three weeks, with a game against Duke — the teams’ third straight meeting — highlighting that part of the schedule. Then comes an early bye before the Big Ten opener at defending division champ Wisconsin.
Here is how the entire Northwestern schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest game to most difficult.
12. Sept. 2 vs. Nevada
Jay Norvell makes his head-coaching debut with the Wolf Pack in Evanston, where Northwestern got off to a surprising 0-2 start last season. It’s tough, however, to imagine Nevada packing the kind of punch from the get-go that Western Michigan did last year when it upset the Cats in Week 1.
11. Nov. 11 vs. Purdue
Another first-year coaching regime awaits the Wildcats toward the bottom of this list, as Northwestern hosts Jeff Brohm and the Boilermakers, who have finished in last place of the Big Ten West in every year of the division’s existence. Brohm is an inspired hire, but the cupboard is pretty bare in Year 1.
10. Sept. 16 vs. Bowling Green
Mike Jinks’ bunch had an inspired finish last season, winning its last three games in his debut campaign as the Falcons’ head coach. Still, it’s a long climb from a 4-8 record to knocking off a perennial Big Ten bowl team, so BGSU will have its work cut out for it in Week 3.
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9. Oct. 14 at Maryland
This game is ranked lower than it should be based on opponent alone, as the Terrapins did manage to go bowling in DJ Durkin’s first season. But a run of nine straight games after the bye makes some of Northwestern’s late-season games tougher than they should be. This will be the first-ever meeting between Maryland and Northwestern.
8. Nov. 25 at Illinois
This is the example we were talking about above. Maryland should probably be better than Illinois in 2017. But this will be Northwestern’s ninth game in as many weeks, and the toll that can take on a football squad is hard to quantify. The fact that the Illini are a heated rival of the Wildcats scores them some points here, too.
7. Oct. 21 vs. Iowa
Iowa is as unpredictable as teams come, as the Hawkeyes followed a 12-0 regular season with an 8-5 mark in 2016. Who knows how Kirk Ferentz’s 19th Iowa team will look come this fall? The history between these two programs bears out as much: Ferentz is 8-8 all-time against the Wildcats (and 5-6 against Fitzgerald).
6. Oct. 28 vs. Michigan State
Another tough team to gauge, at least this year, is MSU. Who else goes from the College Football Playoff one year to a 3-9 record the next? Sparty will look different this year; it has to. Seeing which of its previous two outfits the 2017 Spartans resemble will be one of the more fascinating storylines in college football this season. It’s why MSU is stuck in the middle of the pack of these rankings, as things can go either way for Mark Dantonio’s team this fall.
5. Nov. 18 vs. Minnesota
The Golden Gophers went 9-4 last season but have a new head coach in P.J. Fleck, whose aforementioned WMU team stunned Northwestern in Week 1 last season. Can Fleck row the boat in Evanston once again? His jump to the Big Ten will be nothing if not exciting, and he should have a pretty decent team to work with, too.
4. Sept. 9 at Duke
A couple things about this ranking: One, it’s a road game. And two, Duke is coached by David Cutcliffe, whom we won’t bet against, especially coming off a disappointing 4-8 season. The fact the Blue Devils can call a four-win campaign a disappointment is telling of the culture change there, especially after having to essentially rush redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones into duty after Thomas Sirk tore his Achilles in camp. Even then, Duke did manage to upset Notre Dame and North Carolina last season.
3. Nov. 4 at Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are never an easy out at home. Northwestern is just 2-4 against Nebraska since the Huskers’ arrival to the Big Ten, although the Wildcats did win in their last trip to Lincoln, in 2015. Nebraska’s new-look defense under coordinator Bob Diaco should be tough to score on.
2. Oct. 7 vs. Penn State
The Nittany Lions are widely considered a preseason top-five team, and while they return an abundance of talent, there’s always the unknown of how a program will perform under the demand of high expectations — in this case, the first time for this team in the post-sanction era. The Wildcats have won their last two games against PSU, and get the Nittany Lions at home, but they’ll have their hands full trying to stop Saquon Barkley and Co.
1. Sept. 30 at Wisconsin
Even though it’s after a bye, this is a tough trip, as Camp Randall is one of the most raucous venues in the country. The Badgers should have a tough defense and will probably be considered the division favorites by the time most preseason forecasts have been publicized. They went 11-3 and won the Cotton Bowl last year, but they are just 2-2 against Northwestern over the last four years. (Paul Chryst is 1-1, losing at home and winning on the road.)
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.