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Northwestern Football Early Schedule Breakdown for 2013

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

The Northwestern football season ended just one week ago, but since the basketball season isn’t going the way many NU fans had hoped, the look-ahead to the 2013 football season has already begun. We already gave you a quick preview of how the Wildcats’ roster could break down on offense and defense in 2013, and other news organizations have already put out preseason polls, giving NU respect both in the Big Ten and nationally.

Today, we look at NU’s 2013 schedule, which figures to be tougher than this year’s slate of games. Ohio State and Wisconsin come back on the schedule as Penn State and Indiana rotate off, which make this slate of games tougher from the start. Check out our breakdown of everything you need to know about the schedule, and take a look at the full schedule.

The Non-Conference Slate: at Cal, vs. Syracuse, vs. Western Michigan, vs. Maine

This is your typical Northwestern schedule: A BCS-conference road game, two more FBS opponents and an FCS foe. The Cal game the front end of a home-and-home, while the Syracuse game is the back end of such a series. Western Michigan was a last-minute addition after, earlier this year, Vanderbilt backed out of a game with NU.

Overall, it’s a respectable, but not-too-difficult slate. NU should be favored in every game, particularly the last three. Cal, Syracuse and Western Michigan all will have new coaches, which make things a lot easier for NU. A road-opener could instill some fear for Wildcats fans, as could new Cal coach Sonny Dykes’ high-powered air attack offense. However, NU’s secondary is much improved this year and the Bears don’t look like they have the personnel to run the offense well just yet.

A 4-0 non-conference record isn’t a guarantee, but by all accounts, NU should be undefeated heading into Big Ten play. If that’s the case, the Wildcats will be hosting their biggest game in years.

Spotlight Game: October 5 vs. Ohio State 

We’ve had a few so-called “biggest games in Ryan Field history” lately, but if NU is 4-0 entering this game, it’s no contest. This could potentially be top 5 Ohio State at top 15 Northwestern. It could potentially be the ABC national primetime game and the site of ESPN’s College Gameday pre-game show. The exposure and the chance to “arrive” on the big stage will be there for the taking.

Obviously, there’s a chance NU isn’t 4-0, but if the Wildcats can get through the non-conference slate unscathed, then this will be the game of the year. This isn’t the most important game from a title game standpoint — division games matter more — but it offers the best chance for the national exposure NU has chasing for years.

Most Important Game: November 2 at Nebraska

Things can certainly change in the coming months, but right now NU and Nebraska look like the favorites in the Legends Division, with Michigan right there, as well. The Michigan game is at home, so that presumably makes it a little easier, and while you can’t ever assume one game will decide the division, NU-Nebraska certainly looks like the biggest game at this time.

Road games in Lincoln are always tough, but Northwestern looks like it might have the better team heading into next year. Most of the Huskers’ new players will settle in by the time this game rolls around, and the offense should be explosive with quarterback Taylor Martinez, running back Ameer Abdullah and wide receiver Kenny Bell returning. However, the defense will have some major holes. We could be in for a shootout in Lincoln to decide the Legends Division in 2013.

Toughest Stretch: Tie — vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin & at Nebraska, vs. Michigan

The second stretch — at Nebraska and vs. Michigan in November (with a bye in between) — is technically the more important stretch because it has more division implications. NU’s performance in those games will almost certainly determine its chances to go to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. However, the two games to start the Big Ten season will be even tougher and may be more important from a morale standpoint.

We’ve already talked about the importance of the Ohio State game, but after that the Wildcats have a trip to Wisconsin. NU can’t afford to have a letdown after the OSU game — be it a big win or a big loss — and the Wildcats certainly don’t want to start the conference season 0-2. The Badgers lose running back Montee Ball, two top offensive linemen and the majority of their secondary, but most of the team will be back to form a pretty dangerous squad. If NU can escape that stretch at 1-1, things will shape up well until the meetings with Nebraska and Michigan in November.

Prognosis

The popular analysis about next season is this: Northwestern will have a better team, but that may not be reflected in the record because of a tough schedule. That’s true, but when people say that, teams tend to succeed despite the tough schedule because, well, they’re good teams. And next year, NU will certainly be a good team.

It’s still too early to pinpoint absolute must-wins because a lot can happen between now and next year. However, it’s tough to envision any worse than a .500 conference record, with 5-3 or 6-2 much more likely and 7-1 not out of the picture, though obviously unlikely. It’s speculation at this point, but NU might need to be 6-2 in the conference, depending on how the cards fall, to earn a trip to Indianapolis. But two things seem likely:

1. The games against Nebraska and Michigan will likely decide NU’s Legends Division fate.

2. We’ll learn a lot more about this team on October 5 when the Buckeyes come to town. And if all works out in the non-conference schedule, the eyes of the nation could be set on Evanston that night.

No pressure, right?