2012 Recap: The Wildcats were subtle, but impressive. Pat Fitzgerald’s boys scalped two SEC teams en route to a 10-3 season. The three losses came on the road against Penn State Michigan and Nebraska by a combined 12 points. Northwestern led all three of those games by double digits in the second half. Basically, they ran the ball well and stopped other teams from doing so. They were able to ride with a “meh” aerial defense, as Big Ten quarterbacks had yet to master the forward pass.
What’s the Same: A lot of depth, experience and versatility in the backfield. Kain Colter was the team’s highest-rated passer, ran for 891 yards and 12 touchdowns and averaged more than 10 yards per reception. They also have Trevor Siemian who is more of a straight up passing quarterback. They have two more than serviceable senior running backs in Venric Mark (1,366 yards and 12 TD in 2012) and Mike Trumpy. They also have a sophomore Dan Vitale, who had two huge games catching the ball as an H-back against Michigan State and Mississippi State.The defense looks to be about what it was last year: solid linebackers, a non-dominant pass rush and a vulnerable secondary.
What’s Different: Most crucial will be the offensive line. Northwestern loses three starters. Two of them earned some level of All-Conference nod last season. If that unit cannot bed in well, Northwestern could have some problems. Fitzgerald is also bullish on the wide receivers. Five of their 2012 top six return. Fans will hope former USC five-star Kyle Prater finally emerges as the guy in 2013.
Ceiling: 10-2. The Wildcats use the formula that saw them scrape their ceiling last year. Perhaps have a little more depth to help them in the fourth quarter on defense. They play in the deeper Legends Division and drew Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders pile. Winning 3/5 against those two, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska gives them an outside shot at the B1G title game.
Floor: 5-7. A drop off at offensive line stymies the offense. Big Ten quarterbacks display surprising competence. Poor fortune with fate and injuries. Maybe Sonny Dykes and Cal jump them with surprising zeal in the first game at home.
Prediction: 8-4. Northwestern can win any game on the schedule and will be competitive in almost every game. But they play the other five of the Big Ten top six. Each of the five could be better than they were in 2012. They will be a very well coached team, playing well coached teams with more talent.
[Photos via USA Today Sports]