Rankings the challengers

The Wildcats face a number of difficult challenges on the schedule this season. PurpleWildcats.com ranks the top-five toughest matchups for Northwestern this season.

1.) Michigan - It is no easy task to leave "The Big House" with a victory, but especially against a Michigan team that is the favorite to take the Big Ten title this season. The Wolverines are poised for a big season, and in November, Northwestern will face the duty of deflating Michigan in front of 111,000 fans.

Second-year head coach Brady Hoke's squad returns dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson, arguably the best player in the Big Ten. Hoke turned a struggling Michigan team into a Sugar Bowl winner in just his first season. The Wolverines also feature a daunting defense led by senior safety Jordan Kovacs.

Northwestern gave Michigan a test in Ryan Field last season, but the game got away from it in the second half. The Wolverines' home-field advantage surely gives them the edge, though NU did pull a road upset over No. 9 Nebraska last season, so it has been done before.

2.) Michigan State - It remains unknown how a young, rebuilding Spartan team will fare this season, but the group could surprise many fans. Mark Dantonio hands over the reigns of his offense to Andrew Maxwell. However, MSU's defense still features All-Big Ten defensive end William Gholston.

Northwestern saw its upset bid of Michigan State slip away last season when senior cornerback Jordan Mabin was injured, forcing an inexperienced Daniel Jones into what would be a rough showing.

This season, the Wildcats will look to take down the Spartans on the road, which will not be easy to do.

3.) Nebraska - When Northwestern and Nebraska met for the first time as Big Ten foes, the Wildcats marched out of Memorial Stadium with an exciting 28-25 upset of the ninth-ranked Cornhuskers. This season, Nebraska is out for revenge in Evanston.

The game was sold out after just two days of availability, with the crowd expected to be filled with plenty of red; Nebraska fans are known for traveling well to each road game.

The Huskers return junior quarterback Taylor Martinez and senior running back Rex Burkhead, each who could be considered Heisman Trophy candidates. However, Northwestern pulled the upset over Nebraska once, so there's no reason to think it couldn't do so again.

4.) Iowa - The series between Northwestern and Iowa has produced many exciting games throughout the past decade. The matchup returns to Evanston this season as the two teams meet for what should be another great contest.

The Hawkeyes will likely show a different look this season with senior quarterback James Vandenberg serving as the offense's playmaker; different from the usual run-first mentality of past Kirk Ferentz teams.

Pat Fitzgerald has had Iowa's number throughout the years, owning a record of 4-2. One thing remains certain: Ryan Field will be electric when the Hawkeyes come to town in October.

5.) Syracuse - You've got to give Northwestern credit for its difficult non-conference schedule. Unlike many other Big Ten squads, NU challenges itself with three BCS opponents. The season-opener against Syracuse will stand as the toughest test.

Northwestern will play the Orange inside the Carrier Dome, which could easily be the loudest environment in which the Wildcats will play this season. On paper, the Wildcats are a better team than Syracuse, but it won't be easy for a young Northwestern team to play in a hostile environment.


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