"Must win" is overused in American sports writing, particularly in college sports. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a game be called a must win, only to see the team lose, but because of other unexpected results, that team is still in contention and gets another "must win" game the next week.
This week's game against Wisconsin has garnered a few "must win" thoughts from Northwestern fans, and while I still denounce the whole premise — who knows how the Legends Division will play out? — there's no doubt that it will be significantly more difficult for NU to win the division if it loses this game.
At this point, it's tough to tell which team is the best in the Legends. Michigan has had some turnover problems and issues with finding a breadth of weapons on offense. Nebraska has a great offense but a terrible defense. Michigan State has a great defense but a bunch of quarterbacks who are bad at playing quarterback (unless Connor Cook turns it around). Iowa has shown some flashes and may upset someone, but the young Hawkeyes are at least a year away from serious contention. So is Northwestern the best team in the Legends? There's certainly as much of an argument for the Wildcats as there is for anyone else.
But will the best team win the division? Given NU's schedule, that might be difficult. The Wildcats got the worst crossover draw of anyone in the division, and their rivals' schedules, they might need to go 6-2 to win the division. That means if NU loses to Wisconsin, it might have to win out to go to Indianapolis. Let's take a look at each of the contender's schedules:
vs. Illinois (W)
vs. Michigan State
at Penn State
You'd have to think that if NU went 6-2, with wins against everyone else in the division, it would be able to win the Legends. There's probably one loss (in addition to the hypothetical NU loss) in here somewhere, but are there two more? Again, anything can happen in college football, but it's not likely the Huskers will lose three of their final six games.
at Penn State
at Michigan State
vs. Ohio State
This schedule is certainly tougher than Nebraska's, since the Wolverines must play Ohio State and travel to division foes Michigan State, NU and Iowa. The Wolverines could very well finish 5-3, if NU slips up against Wisconsin and in another game, the Wildcats have to beat the Wolverines.
Again, it's tough to say how everything will play out. Maybe Michigan won't turn things around and Nebraska's defense will just give up. However, given the other schedules in the division this year — Nebraska's in particular — it's tough seeing NU winning the division at 5-3, especially if that one division loss comes against Nebraska or Michigan.
With that in mind, this week's game against Wisconsin might not be a "must win," but it a win would give NU a lot more margin for error later in the season.