It is tempting to look at Northwestern’s season in the prism of a potential division champion, and after nearly competing for a Legends title last season, the notion feels downright reasonable in 2013. There are a few variables – schedule strength, relatively unproven young players playing more snaps, a less favorable turnover ratio – that could push the Wildcats out of the running far earlier than anyone expected.

But if they do hang around long enough to contend for a spot in Indianapolis, it’s worth taking a look at the team they’ll most likely need to overcome along the way. That’s the basic premise for today’s debate topic: Northwestern’s biggest competition in the Legends. It won’t be long before we start talking about these teams as part of our “gameweek” preview material; for now, long-view speculation will have to suffice.

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Michigan 

Reading the above name almost impulsively invokes last season’s brutal road loss at the Big House – a game that, looking back, could well have swung Northwestern’s fortunes in the division race. The Wildcats couldn’t hang on, lost two other games to Penn State and Nebraska and wound up placing third in the comparatively brutal Legends Division (for a couple weeks there, Indiana had a shot to win the Leaders; Indiana!).

Beating Michigan this season could be the difference between last season’s third-place finish and an outright division crown. That’s not the topic we’re trying to address here, even if upending the Wolverines at home is pivotal for NU’s division title chances. We’re talking about the team most likely to win the division in the event Northwestern doesn’t, which – while an NU-oriented matchup analysis is important – requires an individual assessment of the selected team, separate from its prospective competitive merits in its upcoming game with NU.

For Michigan, that means looking at a schedule that includes only two truly daunting road games (Penn State gets an honorable mention): at Michigan State and at Northwestern. If the Wolverines can survive Happy Valley and exercise their annually thrilling in-state rivalry distaste in winning fashion, provided they take care of business against Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana at home, Michigan has a smooth path all the way up to the final game of the season, when they face preseason national championship contender Ohio State.

There are a lot of caveats in that schedule analysis, and sure, Michigan could lose any number of games; even a Nov. 23 road stop at Iowa is no guarantee. But the more important angle of any team’s preseason prospectus is the actual team itself – the players, coaches, scheme and momentum the program carries into the season. Michigan checks all of those boxes in flying colors. The Wolverines return six starters on both sides of the ball, will hand coordinator Al Borges’ preferred pro-style offense over to a quarterback (Devin Gardner) with the pocket passing ability to make it hum and have officially, once and for all, reversed the ugly mid-to-late-aughts depression Wolverines fans spent years agonizing over.

This year’s UM group is something closer to the classic Maize and Blue heavyweights we’re used to. Nebraska might have a more favorable schedule, and Michigan State may be primed for a resurgent year after suffering so many close losses last season, but the Wolverines have the winning hand in the most important category. They have the best team.

Look past the ancillary factors, the potential for upsets along the way, and trust that the best team in July – schedule concerns alongside – will be the best team in December. I realize this is a crude and short sighted way to analyze a football season, but try spinning the comparison a different way: would you rather bet on random road upsets derailing the best team from reaching a division championship? Or the best team handling weaker competition and beating the opponents it should?  In other words: the security of Michigan’s roster, the talent and experience it has on both sides of the ball, feels like a safer proposition than picking, say, Nebraska and taking fliers on Michigan falling to lesser competition in tricky road games.

No verdict will be reached until the end of November, so the only option is to make educated guesses based off what we know, and excluding what we don’t, at this point in the offseason. Without the help of a season of evidence, the Wolverines look like the best choice.

- Chris Johnson

Nebraska

Considering how last season went, it seems foolish to write an article like this in July. Who, last July, would have thought that Northwestern would have been one of Michigan and Nebraska’s biggest challengers in the Legends? There will no doubt be surprises this year, but heading into the season, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern look like they’re clearly the teams to beat in the division (I’m not buying the Michigan State hype. They’ve yet to prove they can score with this team.)

So that begs the question — which team is a greater threat to NU’s chances? It’s tough to tell right now, considering the question marks surrounding both teams. Michigan should be “pretty good” all around, but will they be great? A lot of the hype surrounding the Wolverines is based on the presumption that quarterback Devin Gardner will be a star. He may end up being just that, but the sample we got last year isn’t enough to judge him. Nebraska’s situation is a little bit more straightforward — the offense may be the best in the league and the defense is, well, not good. Maybe the defense will come around, but there’s also the chance it could be like Northwestern’s defense of a couple years ago.

Still, I like Nebraska as the team to beat in the division, particularly because of just how good the offense will be. You thought last year’s Nebraska offense was good? This one will be even better. Taylor Martinez is still erratic at times, but he became much more consistent last year and will likely be considered the Big Ten’s second best quarterback heading into the season. The wide receivers, led by Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, are among the best in the Big Ten and running back Ameer Abdullah is a rising star who should eventually be up for first team All-Big Ten honors (possibly even this year).

The defense is in rough shape, but the Cornhuskers just might be able to outscore everyone. That high-powered offense will test an NU defense that figures to be better this year, but still has to prove itself. Plus, this game is in Lincoln, while NU-Michigan is in Evanston. This isn’t to say the Wildcats can’t hold the Huskers in check, nor is it to say NU can’t win in Lincoln — they did just that with a much worse team two years ago. However, if Nebraska’s offense gets rolling with a lot of momentum in front of a home crowd, things could get dicey for NU, and that appears to be a more daunting challenge for NU than a home game against Michigan.

- Kevin Trahan

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