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Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule

The Wildcats will face a tough slate of opponents.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In college football, when there are few games and the margins between different win totals are razor thin, schedules are important. Catching a team at the right or wrong time can make a significant difference in a game or two, which changes the entire complexion of a season. So, after previewing all of the opponents on Northwestern’s schedule individually, it makes sense to breakdown how those games fit together, by both order and location.

The start to the schedule is a weird one, with a short bus ride over to West Lafayette to open the season against Big Ten foe Purdue. Of the entire schedule, this may be the biggest question mark, and maybe even the most important game.

Yes, Purdue probably won’t be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West. But, it’s no sure thing that Northwestern will be one. Lose that Thursday night game to open the season, and the race for the division crown goes from steep to nearly vertical. This is as close to a must-win game — and maybe even a toss-up — as it gets.

Plus, there could actually be a decent crowd in West Lafayette, which works against the Wildcats. Purdue has had trouble filling its stadium, but, for a game that will kick off the season with some real expectations for Jeff Brohm & Co., there might be some real fans. Playing on the road is never easy.

That the game comes in Week 1 is another discussion. Will playing a conference game in Week 1 affect the outcome? There’s no way to know. NU has started flat in several seasons now, so I’m inclined to say this is more of a negative than a positive. It might mean nothing. It will probably not mean that much. It’s still different, though.

Because the Purdue game takes place on a Thursday, NU will have two extra days to prepare for Duke, which is a nice benefit. If NU loses the opener, it’ll have some extra time to regroup and potentially make changes. Regardless, Duke will be tough this season, and having extra time should allow for a deep breath and an opportunity to refocus after the hype and anticipation that goes into Week 1.

After Duke, Akron should (and I say “should” even with the ugly scenes from the Illinois State seared into my brain) be an easy win. C’mon, it has to be, right?

Assuming it is, it will be good to have an easier opponent before Michigan, which is a difficult game. Michigan will be coming off of Nebraska, which should be a comfortable win, especially at home (Disclaimer: I’m lower on the Huskers than most). The Wolverines have Maryland the next week after NU, so they really shouldn’t be looking ahead all that much. The game isn’t at the Big House, which is good, but Michigan should be firing on all cylinders by that point in the season.

Playing Michigan State right after Michigan is where things could potentially spiral. Michigan will be a physical game, and heading up to East Lansing the following week is a difficult way to come back afterward. MSU could be looking ahead to games against Penn State and Michigan in coming weeks, but probably not after what the Wildcats have done against the Spartans in past years. The circumstances around that game scare me a lot, and MSU is already a good team. If NU can split against Michigan and Michigan State, it will be in good shape.

Next up is Nebraska at home, which, if recent memory is any indication, will be a wacky game. Scott Frost and the Huskers have no experience at quarterback, so I feel like this should be a win.

Rutgers in the following week should also be a win, but this has trap game written all over it. One, it’s on the road, and could be a weird (and empty) atmosphere. Two, Wisconsin is the next week, and that is the biggest game of the season. Looking past Rutgers may not have mattered in the past, but this season it could matter more.

Then come the Badgers, followed by Notre Dame, both at home. Having these games at home is big, in large part because it means those games aren’t on the road in packed stadiums. Playing Wisconsin later in the season is a major benefit, in my view, if Northwestern is to contend in the Big Ten West. Having to play the Badgers early in the schedule, like last season, means the Wildcats could be at of the running early on, which is disappointing all around. This way, NU will have time to get ready and get its feet underneath it before trying to slay the West’s perennial power. Maybe the game will be meaningless so late in the season. But it always could.

Wisconsin should be the most physical team on the schedule, so playing Notre Dame the following week isn’t ideal. But if you can’t get up for Notre Dame, at any point in the season, there’s a problem.

Iowa is a bit worrisome following Wisconsin and Notre Dame because of there may be some let-up after playing what could be the two most difficult stretches of the schedule. This three game stretch — from October 27 to November 10 — is going to be immensely difficult. Obviously, the Big Ten games are more important than Notre Dame. But, for the season to be a success, I think NU needs to go 2-1, and it really needs to beat Wisconsin.

Minnesota and Illinois, two teams that project to be at the bottom of the division next season, are nice to have at the end of the season. If NU is struggling to get bowl eligible, Illinois should be a free win (I’ll say it). If NU is leading the division (a massive if), it shouldn’t have a ton of trouble maintaining its lead.

Taking a more macro view, this schedule is hard throughout, and there aren’t a ton of times where NU can afford to slip. With 11 Power Five games (counting Notre Dame) and four top 15 opponents, this season will provide a real test — and opportunity — for Pat Fitzgerald and his team to prove they’re ready for primetime.