After winning 10 games in two out of the last three seasons, and posting back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history, there is hope that the Wildcats are primed to win their first division title since the format began in 2011. But with Justin Jackson no longer in NU's backfield, quarterback Clayton Thorson's status up in the air after offseason knee surgery, and changes on both offense and defense, Pat Fitzgerald and company will have some challenges ahead of them this year.
Coach Fitz however has never been one to back down from a challenge, nor will he make excuses. Here's how the Wildcats schedule breaks down from easiest game to the toughest matchup.
12. Sept. 15 vs Akron
The Zips have not beaten a Big Ten team in this decade. That won't change here.
11. Oct. 20 at Rutgers
The Scarlett Knights are still in the process of rebuilding as evidenced by their 5-22 Big Ten record since 2015. Playing on the road should be the only challenge for Northwestern on this day.
10. Nov. 24 vs Illinois
Rivalry games are usually the toughest part of any schedule, but what gives NU the advantage this time is the fact that they've won four of their last five games against the Illini.
9. Sept. 8 vs Duke
The Wildcats have won their last two games against the Blue Devils and have a 4-2 overall record against them since 2002.
8. Nov. 17 at Minnesota
P.J. Fleck has proven that he can turn programs around. Expect the Gophers to show at least some improvement from last year's shutout loss to the Wildcats.
7. Aug. 30 at Purdue
David Blough is back at quarterback for the Boilermakers and he's had a full year to absorb Jeff Brohm's offense. With the Wildcats breaking in some new players on defense, this season opener could have some growing pains here and there.
6. Oct. 6 at Michigan State
The Wildcats have won the last two games in this series by a combined score of 93-71. This year Northwestern won't have the likes of Justin Jackson, Austin Carr and Garrett Dickerson to give the ball to so scoring points against a stout Spartans' defense will be easier said than done.
5. Oct. 13 vs Nebraska
With Cornhuskers legend Scott Frost now running the show in Lincoln, the program has been invigorated with an energy not seen since the early 2000s. If the spring game has taught us anything, it's that Frost's up-tempo offense will be looking to make an immediate impact. Northwestern will have its hands full.
4. Nov. 10 at Iowa
The Hawkeyes are always in the thick of the Big Ten West race and this year should be no different. They'll be another obstacle that the Wildcats will have to overcome to reach their goals. Northwestern does own a two-game winning streak in this series.
3. Sept. 29 vs Michigan
Jim Harbaugh has yet to post a losing season at Michigan, and with Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson set to take over at quarterback, the Wolverines have an upgraded offense to complement their defense. This game will set the tone for the rest of Northwestern's season.
2. Nov. 3 vs Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish have significantly improved from both a talent and coaching standpoint since losing to NU in 2014. Notre Dame should still be a College Football Playoff contender by the time this game arrives, so a loss to the Golden Domers might be enough to derail Northwestern's postseason aspirations.
1. Oct. 27 vs Wisconsin
The Badgers have owned the Big Ten West for the last two seasons. If Northwestern wants a shot at playing in Big Ten Championship Game in December, this midseason clash is a must-win.
-- 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.