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Offseason musings: Northwestern's November Legends Gauntlet

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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Time and again this offseason Northwestern players reiterated their goal of winning the Big Ten championship in 2013. This goal is not unachievable, but it will require the Wildcats to win a Legends Division most believe Nebraska, Michigan or Michigan State have just as good (or better) a chance of winning. As members of the Legends, Northwestern will play all of these teams this season and, needless to say, each of these games will be absolutely pivotal. Any of them – depending on which team is contending for the division title and where Northwestern sits in the standings at that particular time – could very well make or break the Wildcats’ season.

Clumped together, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State are the three most important games Northwestern will play all season, and guess what? They just so happen to appear on NU’s schedule in consecutive weeks. Starting Nov. 2 with a trip to Lincoln, the Wildcats face Nebraska, take one week off, then play Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23) at home.

That is a brutally important three-week stretch. If the Wildcats win all three, their championship aspirations are not just possible, but downright realistic. Lose three straight, and Northwestern will be effectively knocked out of the division race.

Which is why Northwestern fans, regional and national media need to look past the Ohio State game when searching for the “most important” game or “stretch” on NU’s schedule. Beating the Buckeyes at home on October 5 would have enormous symbolic rippling effects. It would be NU’s “biggest” home win of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. Everyone is wildly excited to see the Buckeyes, and their probable 4-0 record, put their national title aims on the line early in the season, in an ESPN primetime television slot, with the outside chance of College Gameday setting up shop in Evanston that morning. Winning that game would be huge. Losing it would be a disappointment.

In the broader context of Northwestern’s division championship goals, an OSU loss wouldn’t be a de facto disqualifier in the same way falling to, say, Michigan very well could be. The Wildcats need to finish ahead of its top division opponents, the most likely of which are lined up in back-to-back-to-back weeks on its November schedule. That stretch, more than any single game Northwestern plays this season, will define whether the Big Ten championship is something this team can achieve.

Most of you already knew this. It doesn’t take much deep intuition or foresight to pull up Northwestern’s schedule, briefly read a preseason Big Ten publication or two, and come to the grand conclusion that yes, “It would help if Northwestern beat Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.” I was just making sure you knew – while simultaneously extending the OSU-dominated discussion of NU’s schedule this preseason beyond October, focusing on the three games that matter most for the Wildcats’ postseason goals.

Each of those games is crucial in its own right. Nebraska, Michigan or Michigan State could challenge for the Legends title this season; a consensus has hardened around the Wolverines as the division frontrunner, for what its worth. Playing them in succession, during the November stretch run, all but guarantees Northwestern’s championship designs will remain up in the air until the last few weeks of the season. That is a thrilling, and altogether frightening, proposition.

Northwestern will play its most exciting game of the season on October 5. It will play its most important games in November.