But what about the other eight games? The big ones -- the ones that earn bowl berths and, during those rare years, conference championships?
So, in Part 2 of our 2007 preview, we'll analyze the Cats' conference schedule. But instead of breaking it down game-by-game, the contests will be lumped into categories.
Addition By Subtraction: Wisconsin and Penn State
Before they even play a game, the Cats are big winners for avoiding these two teams. Bret Bielema, in his coaching debut, pushed the Badgers to a one-loss season, and they should be just as dangerous this season. Meanwhile, after looking like a program in peril a couple of years ago, Penn State has returned to its intimidating status thanks to a remarkable job by Joe Paterno. Missing these two isn't quite as big as skipping Michigan and Ohio State, but it's close.
The Highly Unlikelies: at Ohio State (Sept. 22), vs. Michigan (Sept. 29)
As usual, these are the two least winnable games on NU's slate. The Cats have been rolled by Ohio State the last two seasons, and this year should be no different. Even though the Buckeyes will lose Heisman-winning QB Troy Smith and several other playmakers, most of their stifling defense will be back.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, are the opposite (several defenders gone, most of the offense back) -- but still likely too much for the NU, which lost at home to Michigan in 2005 when it arguably was the better team.
The Tough'n's: at Purdue (Oct. 27), vs. Iowa (Nov. 3)
Curtis Painter and Purdue's prolific passing attack will be back, but Purdue's been shaky on defense the last couple of seasons. Also, some offseason turmoil involving a stabbing and a DUI arrest give the already-mediocre Boilermakers a little to be concerned about.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, stumbled to a 6-7 mark in 2006, and lose QB Drew Tate. Still, while Iowa often struggles with NU (it lost 21-7 at home last season), never underestimate coach Kirk Ferentz.
The Questions: at Michigan State (Oct. 6), vs. Minnesota (Oct. 13)
Two teams, two loads of talent, two new head coaches. The Spartans underachieved at record levels the last few seasons -- and lose QB Drew Stanton, to boot -- but they did put up that ridiculous, record-breaking 35-point comeback on the Cats last year. Still, can former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio (not to be confused with Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni) halt the underachieving?
As for the Golden Gophers, they were on the wrong end of an epic comeback last season (blowing a record 31-point lead to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl), which cost coach Glen Mason his job. Instead of hiring in the college ranks, Minnesota went pro, snagging Denver Broncos tight ends coach Tim Brewster. Only time will tell whether Brewster will resemble Charlie Weis or Ron Zook, but it doesn't hurt the Gophers to have 1,200-yard rusher Amir Pinnix back and former NU offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar heading up the attack.
The Should-Wins: vs. Indiana (Nov. 10), at Illinois (Nov. 17)
These teams still are the bottom-feeders, though they've become much more competitive recently. It's not "Who's that?" anymore for the Hoosiers, who went 3-5 in the Big Ten last year (better than NU) and came one win short of being bowl-eligible. Indiana still has a long way to go, however, having lost to UConn and Division I-AA Southern Illinois last season. Sophomore QB Kellen Lewis might give NU's defense fits, though.
As for the Illini, the aforementioned Zook's off-publicized recruiting class probably won't help them this year. Neither will Zook's horrific track record as a coach. And that hyped QB Juice Williams? He completed just four of 17 passes in Illinois' season-ending 27-16 loss to NU, the Illini's fourth straight Sweet Sioux Tomahawk defeat.
... So what does this all mean? Aside from the typical trouble with Michigan and Ohio State, all the other games are winnable. But, if 2006's mistakes continue, each could be lost, too.
One thing's for sure about the Big Ten in 2007: With two new coaches, five new quarterbacks and a whole lot of turnover, questions greatly outnumber the certanties. NU looks like it can win anywhere from two to six conference games this season. But which one will it be?