Wildcats embrace difficult early tests

It's a college football tradition, the same as tailgating and cheerleaders, for major-conference schools to take on a cupcake non-conference schedule. That, however, is not the case for Northwestern, which opens the season against three BCS foes.

Nobody can accuse Northwestern of playing a cupcake non-conference schedule. The Wildcats open up the season with three major-conference foes, a rarity in college football.

To open the 2012 campaign, Northwestern travels to the hostile environment of Syracuse's Carrier Dome, then hosts Vanderbilt and Boston College in consecutive weeks. Not exactly the fluffy games Pat Fitzgerald would envy.

"I'd rather play Carl Sandberg High School," joked NU's seventh-year head coach. "They're not going to let us do that."

Instead, each opponent will surely challenge Fitzgerald's Wildcat squad, a group in which he classifies as young. A season-opener on the road is difficult for any team, but especially when it's inside the Carrier Dome.

The Dome's bottled noise and striking heat can make it one of the nation's most difficult venues to visit. Northwestern starting running back Venric Mark isn't intimidated.

"I don't care, I'm from Texas," he said. "We have heat in Texas. To be honest, I'm just ready to play."

Following the initial test with the Orange, difficult home contests with Vanderbilt and Boston College follow. Northwestern beat the Commodores to open the 2010 season and topped the Golden Eagles in the 2011 opener.

NU closes out non-conference play with South Dakota, its lone easy breath before the Big Ten slate begins. 

Needless to say, a difficult test lies ahead for Northwestern.

"It's not a midterm, it's a final," Fitzgerald said. "We're going to find out right away where we're at and how we handle it. There will be no team better prepared for Big Ten football season than we, after we go through all these non-conference games."

However, the challenge of a tough schedule isn't something Fitzgerald looks to shy away from. He embraces the opportunity.

"That's the great thing about college football," he said. "Every game counts,  every game matters, every rep counts."

Syracuse presents a daunting task for the Wildcats' season-opener. Senior quarterback Ryan Nassib leads a hungry team that's disappointed by its stumble in 2011 in which it dropped the final five games.

"They've definitely got a good team with a lot of threats," NU sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "We've got to come out, do what we do, and trust our training."

Under Fitzgerald's leadership, the Wildcats are 6-0 in week one games, including three against BCS opponents. An early-season challenge isn't anything new for Northwestern.

The first of several difficult games awaits the Wildcats on Saturday, and the team is up for the task.

"This is a huge test," said Fitzgerald. "Our guys are aware of it and we've been working our tails off since January to prepare for this opportunity. Now we're going to go out and make it happen. It won't be easy, I can promise that."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats and Chicago Cubs. He currently resides on Chicago's north side.
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