Now it's time for a closer look at Northwestern's 2011 regular season schedule just before things kick off for real. Some new wrinkles will of course be added this year with the Big Ten divisions (NU is in the Legends Division, the other being the Leaders) and of course, the addition of Nebraska to the conference and NU's schedule.
The 'Cats were somewhat fortunate in terms of who they miss from the other division this season: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue are absent from NU's slate, and the first two on that list are the presumptive favorites to win the opposite division. Also, the Wildcats get a couple of their tougher draws (Penn State and Michigan State) at home. Add to that four winnable non-conference games (although, as always, NU should never take any game for granted), and NU looks to be in a promising position given its experience-laden team heading into this season.
September 3 at Boston College
For the second consecutive season, NU starts off the season on the road against a fellow academically-minded BCS conference foe: Boston College. Unlike last year's opponent (Vanderbilt, who has had exactly two winning seasons in my lifespan), BC has accumulated a whopping 12 consecutive winning seasons and a notable 8-4 record in bowl games during that span (the eight wins were all consecutive).
This year, BC looks to be in the upper half of the ACC Atlantic Division, featuring a strong defense led by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Although their already-struggling offense suffered a blow with a knee injury to ACC preseason Offensive Player of the Year right back Montel Harris, they still have some weapons and are in fact good enough on defense to win a slugfest, particularly at home.
September 10 vs. Eastern Illinois (FCS)
The Wildcats will definitely come down a notch in difficulty for their home opener as they face the Eastern Illinois Panthers, a team expected to finish in the middle of the Ohio Valley conference standings, meaning that the 'Cats should be able to regroup and cruise to a win here. In fact, after the infamous loss to FCS New Hampshire in Fitz's first home game as head coach in 2006 (a 34-17 loss), NU demolished the next four lower-subdivision opponents by an average score of 36-6.
Meanwhile, EIU has lost its last seven matchups against FBS teams (by significant margins), with its last win coming against hapless Eastern Michigan back in 2004. Expect the Wildcats to keep things vanilla and (hopefully) give the starters some rest before the grind begins.
September 17 at Army
The Army Black Nights seemingly turned a corner last year, as they made their first bowl appearance since 1996 (a close win over Southern Methodist), and of course feature a unique triple-option offense that loves to catch teams off-guard. They ranked eighth nationally in rushing offense (over 250 yards per game) but were dead last in passing offense (fewer than 80 yards per game through the air). Quarterback Trent Steelman (yes, that's really his name) leads the way on offense, while on defense, they also feature a unique look: the double-eagle flex that uses speed to make up for size and helped them to rank 29th in total defense last year. This has trap game written all over it, but fortunately, NU knows that they are coming and can hopefully prepare well in advance.
Which will be NU's toughest game in 2011?
October 1 at Illinois
NU gets a bye week early in the season, in fact, the week before Big Ten play begins in Champaign against NU rival Illinois. The Illini have some solid players returning this year after turning things around last season in their bowl-winning campaign, and add that to the fact that they have eight home games in 2011, they have a shot at being a dark horse in the Leaders Division race. This game will likely shape both teams' seasons as they fight for the Land of Lincoln Trophy and NU hopes to avenge the ugly loss at Wrigley Field last November. If the Wildcats want to rise above the middle this season, this game is a must-have, while Illinois Coach Ron Zook will once again need a win to work on keeping his job secure.
October 8 vs. Michigan
The 'Cats then start a string of three consecutive night games when the Wolverines come to town featuring a new head man, Brady Hoke, who has seemingly restructured the entire program following the failed Rich Rodriguez era (NU only played Michigan once during that time, the 21-14 win in Ann Arbor in 2008). The Michigan defense has nowhere to go but up, and the offense will be quite interesting with Denard Robinson still at the helm but a pro-style look instead of the Rodriguez spread.
Many will be looking forward to this matchup between Robinson and NU quarterback Dan Persa, and if neither defense substantially improves, the final score could very well look like that from when these teams met in 2000 (with NU fans hoping for the same result). Both teams will need a win here to be in contention for a Legends Division title.
October 15 at Iowa
NU then heads to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes at night, where the fans will certainly be rabid given that Fitz is 3-0 against Iowa there (4-1 overall). While Iowa will have to replace a couple of key components (particularly on the defensive line as well as at quarterback), they bring in a promising right back (Marcus Coker, who ran wild during their bowl win over a solid Missouri team) and a stereotypically solid offensive line. Fitz certainly has Iowa's number, and this looks to be quite a test for the 'Cats in what may be their second-toughest game of the season, although, not unlike Illinois, nobody knows for certain how this year's Iowa team will turn out. This will be the midway point of Northwestern's season and will be a real test of how good NU actually is.
October 22 vs. Penn State (Homecoming)
Then, the 'Cats head back to Evanston to face Penn State, one of the two Big Ten teams Fitz has faced but never beaten, with Persa and NU hoping to avenge last year's collapse after holding a 21-0 lead with under one minute left in the first half (they then allowed 35 unanswered points). PSU has talent but remains unproven in some key areas, meaning that this game is definitely winnable for the Wildcats. In fact, this closes the first half of NU's Big Ten slate, with four essentially toss-up games as of right now. If NU has managed to build up some momentum by this point, they could really make this season special going into a relatively softer second half of conference play.
October 29 at Indiana
Northwestern will make a second consecutive trip to Bloomington to face former NU Offensive Coordinator Kevin Wilson during his first season at the helm there. While IU lacks the talent and doesn't have depth right now, the 'Cats always seem to play them close, with the past seven games being decided by one score (NU is 6-1 over that span, with the one loss coming at Indiana in 2008). With Wilson's offensive prowess, this one could very well be a high scoring affair, and this game will be key for NU to add to its win total and hopefully attain bowl eligibility and/or climb the bowl ladder.
Don't expect Indiana to go away without a fight, though, as Wilson will certainly give his former employer a good shot.
November 5 at Nebraska
Now comes what is by far the toughest game of the year: Big Ten newcomer Nebraska, a top 10 preseason team who NU must face on the road. The Cornhuskers' defense will be scary good, featuring DT Jared Crick, while the offense looks to add consistency with QB Taylor Martinez heading into his second full season at the helm. Even if the 'Cats are rolling at this point, they will likely be a large underdog as they visit Lincoln for the first time since 1974 and face the Huskers for the first time since the 66-17 drubbing in the 2000 Alamo Bowl. Nebraska has a very tough schedule this season and this game will be seen as a reprieve for them; if the 'Cats could pull off the large upset this game could very well shape the division race.
November 12 vs. Rice
After that tough road game, NU will get to come home for a couple of easier matchups as they close out the year with three home games. The 'Cats easily trounced the Owls in Houston last year, and it looks like NU will have a good chance to pick up a win against them again this year (albeit in a much colder climate). Rice will be returning some of their best players, but they haven't shown consistent improvement since NU's win, and the 'Cats will likely be happy to be facing them after their first six Big Ten games. Yes, as always, NU should never underestimate any team, but the Wildcats should be able to keep things simple and come out with a win at home as they begin the home stretch.
November 19 vs. Minnesota
The 'Cats will face their third Big Ten team with a new head coach, as Jerry Kill leads the Gophers into town. NU barely skated by with a win at Minnesota last year, and Kill will likely have the Gophers in a much better place mentally this season, so the 'Cats should definitely watch out. But, if Northwestern can limit its mistakes, they will definitely hold an edge here, especially this late in the year.
NU fans certainly hope that injuries will be minimal at this point in the season, as the resulting team depth will go a long way in determining games at this time of year. It is very likely that this game will mean significantly more to NU as it jockeys for bowl position, but never count out an up-and-coming hungry new head coach.
November 26 vs. Michigan State
Northwestern's final game of the regular season, against MSU at home the Saturday after Thanksgiving, will be quite interesting, as nobody ever really knows what to expect out of the Spartans late in the year, and NU hasn't had a home game after Thanksgiving since 1989. MSU is ranked going into the year and has a rather stacked team, especially on offense, as they feature senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and a bevy of wide receivers.
Either or both of these two teams could very well be in contention for the Legends Division title and spot in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, so this game could have a whole lot of meaning. It will also be very interesting to see how the 'Cats can finish off the season after the way they fell precipitously in 2010.
Overall, NU does have a relatively favorable schedule, with only the trip to Nebraska looking like a sure loss. NU is also fortunate to get both PSU and MSU at home, and even though they have a key stretch of games in early to mid October, the 'Cats' schedule is relatively balanced with winnable games sprinkled through every month. After that aforementioned October stretch, the Wildcats will know what kind of team they have: one that will be fighting for bowl eligibility down the stretch, or one that will be competing for a spot in Indianapolis come December 3.
Without a doubt, this season will be interesting, and NU is certainly poised to have a say in the race to the first Big Ten title game.