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How Northwestern's demanding October schedule will dictate its 2016 season

The month of October will be a "gauntlet" for Northwestern. See what the Wildcats had to say about it during Big Ten Media Days.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The month of October hasn't been kind to Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats.

Since 2011, Northwestern football has a 6-13 record in October, with its two October losses last year to Michigan and Iowa ending at a combined 78-10 score.

And this year, the road to an improvement in the month travels through Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus, home to three teams at least as daunting as last year's debacles. The Wildcats will take on three top 10 teams from the Associated Press' final poll last season in Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, with the homecoming game against Indiana sandwiched in between on October 22.

"It's definitely a great opportunity for us as a program, with October historically not being our best month of the year," cornerback Matthew Harris said Monday on the opening day of Big Ten Media Days.

In terms of defense, Northwestern stacked up pretty well last season with these three powerhouses. But in just about everything else, the Wildcats were a step behind. Pat Fitzgerald hasn't beaten Iowa since 2012, Michigan State since 2012 and has never beaten Ohio State. The Wildcats last topped the Buckeyes in 2004—they last beat the Buckeyes in Columbus in 1971. The last time the Wildcats faced all three schools in the same season (2013), they went 0-3.


Final 2015 AP Ranking Bowl Result Regular Season Record Offensive PPG Defensive PPG
Iowa 9 Lost in Rose Bowl 12-0 30.9 18.5
Michigan State 6 Lost Cotton Bowl (CFP Semifinal) 11-1 29.8 20.5
Ohio State 4 Won Fiesta Bowl 11-1 35.7 14.0
Northwestern 23 Lost Outback Bowl 10-3 19.5 16.4

Within a span of 28 days, Northwestern will hit the road to three cavernous stadiums that average 63,142 (Iowa), 74,661 (Michigan State) and 107,224 (Ohio State) fans per game, respectively. Northwestern's average attendance: 33,366.

"It's gonna be tough," Jackson said during his podium session. "Playing those three teams at any point during the year is tough, much less playing them all in the same month. We're gonna have to be in the ice tub a lot."

Fitzgerald pointed to Northwestern's early games as must-wins to make the October "gauntlet" meaningful.

"We've got to put ourselves in a position to have those games be significant by the way we play prior to that," Fitzgerald said. "Otherwise, we're just another blip on the radar. We have got to start fast with four at home."

Before the team heads to Iowa City, Northwestern takes on Western MichiganIllinois StateDuke and Nebraska—all at home. Entering October with a 4-0 record is a "key" according to Fitzgerald.

"We've got a lot of work to do to make that month (October) significant," he said.

And for Northwestern, the month of October will prove to be pivotal in its bowl game placement and perhaps even its bowl eligibility. Let's break down each potential scenario:

0-4

If the Wildcats go 0-4 in October, which wouldn't be unheard of—all it would take is losing three games it'll almost certainly be underdogs in and an upset from a resurgent Indiana program that can put up points in bunches—a bowl game becomes a question mark. Outside of October, a multiple conference games can be looked at as toss-ups, especially Wisconsin and Nebraska. Going 0-4 in October, even with a perfect September, would put Northwestern into must-win territory down the stretch, with the end result being either no bowl or a much less prestigious bowl than last year's New Years Day encounter with Tennessee.

1-3

I'm sure many Northwestern fans are expecting 1-3 in October. The easy way to look at it is that the team will lose all three road games and win against an underdog in Indiana at home. If 1-3 happens, the optimal one win would be against Iowa—as the only October game against a Big Ten West foe, that matchup on October 1 will prove the most pivotal for the Wildcats' conference ranking. Regardless, 1-3 puts Northwestern in decent position, but it would need an undefeated start to the season to allow leeway for three losses and still secure a bowl bid.

2-2 or 3-1

A 2-2 or 3-1 October would put Northwestern in great position. It's fair to predict that the Wildcats will be a favorite or very close underdog in all of their other games outside of the treacherous three, so a one or two-loss October puts Northwestern in prime position for a potential 10-win repeat and a bowl appearance Fitzgerald can be proud of.

4-0

It might seem like a pipe dream for Northwestern fans, but crazier things have happened, and Northwestern proved at both Nebraska and Wisconsin last year that it can win in hostile environments. Of course, there's the Michigan loss at the opposite end of the spectrum, but even one win in Iowa could propel momentum for the rest of the month. 4-0 in October would mean significant improvements in all aspects, and that the offense would have taken a huge leap into stardom.

Summary

"There's no question if we want to be in position to have our name talked about in November to compete for this trophy to my right, we've got to be more consistent in October," Fitzgerald said at his opening press conference.

At this point, though, it's all speculation. But the month of October is important for the Northwestern football program. With three road games against three college football powerhouses—all with national exposure—Northwestern has a chance to break through. Even a win or two puts them on the map—for national media, for recruits and, most importantly, for success in 2016.