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Northwestern preview: It’s mojo vs. the schedule — is a step back unavoidable?

Perhaps only five times this season — if even that many — Northwestern will take the field as a favorite. For a program that reached 10 victories in 2015 and again in 2017, the schedule sure isn’t all that promising.

Will the Wildcats be able to avoid falling back into the Big Ten pack like they did in 2016, when they won the Pinstripe Bowl to cap a 7-6 season?

Their opener Thursday at Purdue, where the anticipation level for the game is extraordinarily high, might set the tone for the next three months. Therein lie back-to-backs against Michigan and Michigan State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame and (late, on the road) Iowa and Minnesota. Forward momentum will be difficult to come by.

‘‘It’s a game-by-game thing,’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. ‘‘Our goal is to win the Big Ten West, then win the Big Ten, then win our bowl game. I’d love to say that third goal is to win a national championship. Action is all that matters.’’

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is looking to get his team rolling early at heavy underdog Rutgers. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

Indeed, it’s probably best for all involved if we’re not the ones giving the preseason and pregame motivational speeches. Fitzgerald, whose teams have excelled as underdogs many times before, just plain does it better.

THREE KEYS IN 2018

1. Clayton Thorson’s comeback

If fully healthy, he’s as good as any quarterback in the Big Ten. But how long will it take for Thorson, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in NU’s bowl game last season, to round back into form? Will he be good to go for the Purdue game? Will he battle rust on an ongoing basis?

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Thorson and T.J. Green both are listed as starters on the depth chart the Wildcats released this week. It’s OK for Fitzgerald to be coy, but one only can assume it’s the guy with three full seasons as a starter under his belt who gives NU its best chance.

2. Quality coverage

NU ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in pass defense in 2017, and the secondary is thin on experience this season. The more disruptive ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller are in the pass rush, the better chance the cover guys have of surviving. Still, this is an area of concern.

3. That mojo, man

In 2015, the Wildcats were an upset machine. In 2016, they clawed out of an early-season hole with a few huge results on the road. Last season, they bounced back from a 2-3 start with an 8-0 streak. How will they surprise us this time?

ONE GAME AT A TIME

Aug. 30 at Purdue: Loss. A prime-time ESPN game at Ross-Ade Stadium? The locals won’t know what to do with themselves.

Sept. 8 vs. Duke: Win. Payback for the Cats, who were embarrassed 41-17 last season in the Blue Devils’ backyard.

Sept. 15 vs. Akron: Win. Maybe the only stress-free three hours NU will have all season.

Sept. 29 vs. Michigan: Loss. NU falls to 0-6 against the Wolverines since its last victory in 2008.

Oct. 6 at Michigan State: Loss. Not only that, but it probably won’t be nearly as entertaining as the triple-overtime classic the Cats won last season.

Oct. 13 vs. Nebraska: Win. In regard to the bowl picture, this might end up being a must-win.

Oct. 20 at Rutgers: Win. A nice tuneup for the team’s game — make that games — of the year.

Oct. 27 vs. Wisconsin: Loss. The Badgers’ rushing offense controls the fourth quarter.

Nov. 3 vs. Notre Dame: Loss. The Irish have more playmakers. So much for those games of the year.

Nov. 10 at Iowa: Win. A beacon in a storm, as the Cats get back to .500.

Nov. 17 at Minnesota: Win. It’s better to peak late than it is to peak early.

Nov. 24 vs. Illinois: Win. A 7-5 regular season might feel like a step back to some, but what do they know?