Heading into the 2013 season, Northwestern has very high expectations. After winning their first bowl game since 1948 last season, Pat Fitzgerald has a lot of momentum behind his Wildcats. Many even expect Northwestern to challenge to win the Legends Division this fall. However, it will be very difficult for Fitzgerald’s team to stay in the race with Michigan and Nebraska, the other two Legends favorites, due to a very tough conference schedule.
Northwestern’s conference schedule is very likely the most difficult in the Big Ten. Apart from the fact that they play in what is considered the more difficult division, Northwestern also has to play the top two teams from the Leaders Division (Ohio State and Wisconsin) in crossover games.
And that is actually how Northwestern will begin their 2013 Big Ten slate, by hosting the preseason No. 2 team in the country, Ohio State, on October 5, in what will likely be the ABC night game. Northwestern will follow up their high profile showdown with a trip to Madison to take on the reigning Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers. These two games alone could seriously stunt Northwestern’s division title aspirations. They will be underdogs in both games and it would obviously be extremely difficult to comeback and win the Legends Division with an 0-2 start.
Northwestern will followup the tough conference slate opening with a home game against lowly Minnesota and a game at Kinnick Stadium to play Iowa. Northwestern would have to win both of these, and winning at Iowa is never easy.
Assuming they can make it past Iowa, the schedule gets very tough once again. On November 2, Northwestern will stay on the road and go play Nebraska, where the Huskers have not lost since November 5, 2011. That loss, by the way, was against Northwestern. Then after a bye week, Northwestern will host Michigan, a fellow favorite to win the Legends and Michigan State the next week. Finally, the Wildcats finish their regular season on the road against in-state rival Illinois.
So, to sum up: Northwestern is in real danger of starting 0-2 and then have to play their three biggest division competitors consecutively in November before finishing up on the road in an always unpredictable rivalry game. It is very possible that Northwestern is the favorite in just two conference games (Minnesota and Illinois) with Minnesota as their only safe home game.
Sure, Northwestern fans can believe they have a really good team this season, but hardly any Big Ten team would be able to thrive with this schedule. Honestly, to finish 4-4 in the Big Ten would be a success for Northwestern.
You can follow Alex Dale on Twitter at @alexdaleCFB