In his seventh year at the helm of Northwestern football, head coach Pat Fitzgerald has a 40-36 record and four straight trips to bowl games, but he's still searching for his first bowl win.
On defense in 2011, Northwestern finished in the bottom quarter of the conference in passing, rushing and total defense, and the Wildcats expect to improve that ranking this season and their fifth-place finish in the Legends Division.
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Here's a closer look at NU's opponents this season. Northwestern's strength of schedule is ranked No. 76, and the Wildcats will face teams that won 49.7 percent of games last season.
Sept. 1 at Syracuse (5-7): The Wildcats will open the season on the East Coast against Syracuse, where senior quarterback Ryan Nassib and the rest of the Orange's offense will offer a motivated Wildcats defense its first opportunity to prove itself after finishing in the bottom fourth of the Big Ten last season.
Sept. 8 vs. Vanderbilt (6-7): Second-year head coach James Franklin and the Vanderbilt Commodores will look to spoil the Wildcats' home opener as they return to Evanston for the first time since 1952. Like Northwestern, the Commodores are coming off a 6-7 season with bowl loss, and both Franklin and Fitzgerald are still searching for their first postseason victory.
Sept. 15 vs. Boston College (4-8): The Eagles will head to Evanston without all-time leading rusher Montel Harris, and where the Wildcats will be waiting without former Heisman Trophy candidate Dan Persa. Persa graduated and Harris transferred to Temple after being dismissed from the Boston College, but the two teams are already familiar with their backups from last year's season opener, a 24-17 Northwestern victory that both stars missed due to injuries.
Sept. 22 vs. South Dakota (6-5): The Wildcats will close out the nonconference season against South Dakota at home. The Coyotes had a winning record last season, but the FCS team has historically gotten hammered by Big Ten opponents with an record of 3-44-3 against the conference, including a 59-10 loss at Wisconsin last season.
Sept. 29 vs. Indiana (1-11, 0-8): What better way to open the Big Ten season than against the team that lost all but one of its games last season? The Wildcats will do exactly that when Indiana comes to town in week five. The Hoosiers should be improved in head coach Kevin Wilson's second season at the helm, but Indiana hasn't won a game in Evanston since 1993.
Oct. 6 at Penn State (9-4, 6-2): Penn State got the better of Northwestern in Evanston last season and the Wildcats are just 1-6 all-time at State College. But the bowl-ineligible Nittany Lions won't be the same next year after losing nine players to transfers this offseason, including star running back Silas Redd.
Oct. 13 at Minnesota (3-9, 2-6): The Wildcats will travel to Minneapolis in hope of securing a road win with a challenging slate of conference matchups looming. The Golden Gophers will be rested coming off a bye-week after opening the conference season against Iowa.
Oct. 20 vs. Nebraska (9-4, 5-3): Starting with the preseason No. 17 Cornhuskers, Northwestern begins a stretch of five straight games against conference opponents that reached bowl games in 2011, including the four teams that finished ahead of the Wildcats in the Legends Division. Northwestern handed the Cornhuskers just their second loss of the season in week nine last season, and the Wildcats will look to contain Rex Buckhead and Co. at home this year.
Oct. 27 vs. Iowa (7-6, 4-4): Kirk Ferentz, now the longest tenured Big Ten coach, quietly led the Hawkeyes to a 7-6 finish. Iowa will be without last season's top rusher and receiver, but quarterback James Vandenberg, who passed for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns, will be back under center. With a favorable schedule, the Hawkeyes could be battling for a Legends Division title when these teams meet in October.
Nov. 10 at Michigan (11-2, 6-2): The preseason No. 8. team in the country will be tough to beat in Ann Arbor. Denard Robinson threw for 337 yards and 2 touchdowns and rushed for another 2 scores and 117 yards against the Wildcats last year. With Northwestern's defense looking to prove itself, the preseason Big Ten favorites will certainly be a challenge.
Nov. 17 at Michigan State (11-3, 7-1): The Wildcats continue through what is arguably the toughest part of the 2012 schedule, and Michigan State is formidable. The Spartans secured the best record in the Big Ten in Evanston last season with their 10th win, and as the preseason No. 13 team Michigan State will once again be competing among the conference's best.
Nov. 24 vs. Illinois (7-6, 2-6): The Land of Lincoln trophy will be up for grabs in the season finale. While the Wildcats have downplayed any rivalry talk with the Illini, Northwestern's players would certainly relish an opportunity to knock off the team that has beaten them the last two seasons -- including last season's come-from-behind thriller.