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2017 Northwestern football winnability rankings explained

There’s a clear top two, but it gets interesting after that.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

With football season less than three weeks away and our "Know Your Opponent" series in the books, it's time to examine how "winnable" each game will be for the Wildcats. One represents the most winnable game for Pat Fitzgerald's team; 12 the most difficult to win. You can look at our rankings on our handy-dandy table.

NOTE: Remember, in this edition, 1=most difficult and 12=least difficult.

We’ve put together a commentary track to accompany our rankings. Some of us answered why they chose a certain team at No. 3. Others gave suggestions for sleeper games, and why Wisconsin is a tougher opponent than Penn State. There are hot takes, there are cold takes, and you should read them.

Will Ragatz — Pick for third-most difficult opponent: Nebraska

As we head into the 2017 season, there isn’t much separation between the four mid-tier in the Big Ten West — Northwestern, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota. The Wildcats get two of the other three in that group at home, but do have to travel to Lincoln and massive Memorial Stadium in early November to take on the Cornhuskers. That atmosphere alone, plus the fact that Nebraska has some promising returning pieces, is enough to make that the third-hardest game on the schedule.

Noah Coffman — Sleeper game: Duke

Duke looks like an easy task on paper because of the relative ease with which Northwestern has handled them the past two years and because of their abysmal 4-8 record last year. But with a year of valuable experience under talented redshirt sophomore QB Daniel Jones’ belt and the absence of Solomon Vault, noted Duke-killer, the Blue Devils could very easily sneak up on the Wildcats. Throw in the difficulty of any road game in college football, no matter the size of the crowd, and you have a potential land mine that could derail Northwestern’s season before it really gets started.

Caleb Friedman — Wisconsin is Northwestern's toughest game

Penn State is ranked No. 6 in the preseason coaches poll and Wisconsin is ranked No. 10, but I believe the Badgers will be a tougher opponent for Northwestern this season. For one thing, the Wisconsin game is on the road and the Penn State game is at home. However, I also think Wisconsin is a better overall squad than Penn State. The Nittany Lions were so good last season because their passing attack was super explosive, but their top deep threat — Chris Godwin — is gone. Trace McSorley had an incredible year, but I think it's unlikely he repeats that production in 2017; some of the ultimately successful chances he took in 2016 will go the other way next season. Wisconsin is the deeper team of the two, and its physical style will be more difficult for Northwestern to handle.

Tristan Jung — Sleeper game: Maryland

Maryland has gone 4-13 since joining the Big Ten. The last time we saw the Terps, they gave up 36 points to Boston College, the worst power conference offense in 2017. But hear me out, I think Maryland could be a trap game for Northwestern. D.J. Durkin is doing some good things down in College Park, and he has Maryland football on the right track. 247 gave Maryland the fourth-best recruiting class in the Big Ten (18th nationally) and those results have to start showing up sometime. Maryland could well be coming off two losses at Ohio State and Minnesota, but the Terrapins will almost certainly be better than their Big Ten record in that game. With Northwestern coming off two very difficult matchups, it’s easy to see Northwestern fitting one of three clichéd narratives.

  • Northwestern goes 2-0 against Wisconsin and Penn State and is overconfident.
  • Northwestern goes 1-1 against Wisconsin and Penn State but is exhausted.
  • Northwestern goes 0-2 against Wisconsin and Penn State and becomes demoralized.

It all screams TRAP GAME to me.

Ian McCafferty — Annual Big Ten Wild Card Game: Minnesota

Row the boat!

A lot of things can change before the 2017 season gets underway in about a month, but looking at Northwestern’s schedule it’s pretty favorable. At the top, Penn State will be difficult as Trace McSorley is just going to bomb the ball down the field and Wisconsin is always tough. At the bottom, Northwestern is far better than Nevada and Lovie is still rebuilding in Champaign. However, there are few games in the middle that will shift the outcome of season, the biggest one being Minnesota.

For all we know, P.J. Fleck’s magic could be gone and Minnesota could be mediocre, but don’t count on it. Minnesota has some pieces in place and could very well be a surprise in the West. Also remember what this defense did to Northwestern up in Minneapolis last season. The Gophers could make it ugly, even if they’re passing attack doesn’t show up.

This game is tough to rank because it’s so late in the season, but I’m giving Fleck the benefit of the doubt, this will wind up one of Northwestern’s tougher games in 2017 and looking back we may very well see it as a barometer for the season.

Davis Rich Watch out for Michigan State

You might have to stick with me for a bit on this one. The Spartans endured a nightmarish 2016 season and come into the fall returning only 44 pecent of their production from last season. They lose nine starters from a bad offense and eight starters from a slightly-better defense. In the Big Ten preseason media poll, the Spartans were picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten East. They probably will.

However, while Michigan State didn’t play like a blue-blood program in 2016, but they still have the talent of a top-tier team. The 2016 recruiting class has suffered some attrition, but former four-star Trishton Jackson and true freshman Josiah Scott turned heads in the spring. Michigan State returns two big, productive running backs that will give Northwestern’s front seven problems.

Moreover, Michigan State could very well be coming to Ryan Field with some momentum. It’s hard to know what to expect from Michigan State. The Spartans don’t play Penn State or Ohio State until November, so it’s conceivable Mark Dantonio’s team could be 6-1 come October 28.

Josh Burton — Penn State is Northwestern’s toughest opponent

No area of Northwestern’s roster got hit harder from graduation than the defensive front seven, which should lead to the Wildcats being particularly susceptible to the rushing game this season. And, in the Big Ten, no returning back is a more devastating runner than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who could singlehandedly take over the Week 6 meeting in University Park.

Wisconsin may have a better defense than the Nittany Lions, who gave up over 25 points a game in 2016, but the losses of Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale really hurt the Badgers’ ground game. That’s why Penn State is a tougher matchup for this Northwestern team than Wisconsin, which is relying on the relatively inexperienced Bradrick Shaw to shoulder most of the carries, at least early on. There are just too many questions for the Wildcats up front right now.

That doesn’t even take into consideration how much of a dual threat Trace McSorley is, and that he’s better on basically all accounts than Alex Hornibrook. Penn State’s offense is just too much deal with and while Northwestern may struggle to put up points against Wisconsin, the Wildcats -- as presently constructed — aren’t built to go score-for-score against such an explosive team.

Martin Oppegaard - Pick for third-most difficult opponent - Iowa

As mentioned, Wisconsin and Penn State are the clear-cut toughest games for Pat Fitzgerald’s team. After that, the only conference game against a team returning a starting quarterback of more than two games is Purdue. In other words, it’s hard to gauge who Northwestern’s third-toughest opponent will be this season.

While Northwestern dropped 38 points on the Hawkeyes in Iowa City last year, Kirk Ferentz’s team will be a good challenge. Four starters are back on the offensive line, including preseason All-Big Ten First Team selection Sean Welsh, and Second Teamer James Daniels. The veteran guard and center, respectively, will be a great matchup against a defensive line that will have to answer questions early in the season. When Northwestern lost the battle at the line of scrimmage, they struggled against less talented opponents; we saw that happen against Western Michigan and Illinois State. With the electric Akrum Wadley and Nevada transfer James Butler in the backfield, the Wildcat linebackers will be tested as well.

Iowa has a ton of holes to fill, but so does nearly every one of Northwestern’s Big Ten opponents. Nathan Stanley might be an upgrade to C.J. Beathard at quarterback and captain Josey Jewell is back to anchor the defense one last time. The Hawkeyes had taken the previous three meetings prior to last year. This is usually a competitive game between two of the Big Ten’s best coaches, especially if there are Big Ten West implications on the line.