The Wildcats' schedule led up to this perfectly—and we're still about 16 days from one of the biggest games in program history. No challenges, one bye week, enough tests to infuse the fans with confidence.
It's odd to think back even two seasons, when the schedule aligned with NU's overall frustration. That began with the loss at Army, when (name that quarterback) Trent Steelman ran through the Dan Persa-less Cats.
The hype all but disappeared when NU hemorrhaged an 18-point lead en route to a loss against Illinois. They returned home with a spotty 2-2 record and a roster loaded with question marks.
So when they arrived at Ryan Field, there was little to cheer for. NU propped up hopes with an excellent first half against Michigan before collapsing. They couldn't overcome Penn State two weeks later, their fifth straight loss, and only broke the skid against one of the worst Indiana football teams in history.
Even after the cathartic win in Lincoln, NU failed to carry any momentum. The Cats beat Rice and Minnesota, and then lost to Kirk Cousins and Michigan State with most students home for Thanksgiving break.
Now, here's an opportunity that lasts beyond October the fifth, a double-edged sword of sorts. The schedule is challenging; the games are entertaining.
Here's an opportunity even more important than securing Gameday with a clean victory this Saturday. This season can cement student support. It can bring in new fans. Should the Ohio State game tarnish this undefeated record–still the probable outcome–NU has ample opportunity to prove its worth on the "national stage" and on Ryan Field.
With significant matchups against Minnesota, Michigan and Michigan State, NU will draw well and potentially steal all three games. They'll encounter more than enough road enthusiasm in trips to Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska; now it's time to bring the energy home.
For NU, part of the battle for relevance has always involved fan support. Can they lay claim to Chicago? Will they break through and seize a Big Ten Championship game berth?
When the Maine game ends, the attention can finally and completely shift. No disappointment, no distraction. Just one massive game at Ryan Field, and perhaps permanently, a team that fans will rally behind.