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Will the Wildcats win the Legends Division?
Northwestern has never recorded back-to-back seasons of double-digit win totals in its program history. But coming off a 10-3 record, which included the Wildcats’ first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team is poised for even bigger and better things in 2013.
15 starters return for Fitzgerald, including quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. The defense brings back seven starters, and there’s All-Big Ten talent at each level of the unit. Northwestern won three out of its final games last year, including a 34-20 victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl and a 23-20 win in East Lansing against Michigan State.
The Wildcats were just a play or two away from beating Michigan and Nebraska last year. If this team can address its pass defense and find a way to make a few more plays in close games, Northwestern could represent the Legends Division in Indianapolis this December.
What will Northwestern's record at the end of the 2013 regular season? Athlon’s panel of experts debates:
Northwestern's 2013 Game-by-Game Predictions
|8/31 at California|
|9/14 Western Michigan|
|10/5 Ohio State|
|10/12 at Wisconsin|
|10/26 at Iowa|
|11/2 at Nebraska|
|11/23 Michigan State|
|11/30 at Illinois|
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Northwestern faces a challenging schedule this year but should be in the thick of the Legends Division race. Last season, the Wildcats finished 10-3 and were just a couple of plays away from a 12-1 mark. If Northwestern can improve its pass defense and continue to average just over 30 points a game, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team will post a double-digit win total once again. Despite three new starters on the line, the offense will remain dangerous with the return of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. The defense has to get better against the pass, but three starters are back – including likely All-Big Ten cornerback Nick VanHoose – giving hope to coordinator Mike Hankwitz for a quick turnaround. Northwestern has a brutal crossover with the Leaders Division, catching Wisconsin and Ohio State in early October. But the Wildcats have a favorable road in Legends Division play, hosting Michigan and Michigan State. Beating the Wolverines or Cornhuskers for the division title won’t be easy, but Northwestern will be a tough out this year and should be a top-25 team on the national level.
Brent Yarina, Big Ten Network, (@BTNBrentYarina)
10-2?! With this grueling schedule?! Yeah, I must be chugging the Purple Kool-Aid. Fact is, I love this Northwestern team. Not only are the Wildcats fresh off a momentum-building 10-3 season, highlighted by the program’s first bowl win since 1949, they return 15 starters (8 offense; 7 defense) from a team that could have won all its games. Even better, Northwestern welcomes back its biggest names, from Kain Colter, Venric Mark and Brandon Vitabile on offense, to Chi Chi Ariguzo, Ibraheim Campbell and Tyler Scott on defense, to Jeff Budzien and the aforementioned Mark on special teams. This team is fast, it’s athletic, it’s balanced (only Ohio State figures to boast a better offense-defense combo), and it’s confident. The only real question is the offensive line, which replaces three starters. That’s a big deal, no doubt, however the anchor (Vitabile) is back and Colter and Mark’s improved health should help offset the inexperience up front.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The schedule is downright nasty for Northwestern and that is what keeps this team from taking a huge next step into the Big Ten championship game. Getting Ohio State and it's reworked defensive line early and at home give the Wildcats a huge chance at a program-defining win. But the back half of the schedule isn't friendly. Road games with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa over a four-game span following the Ohio State game will be a trying and defining portion of the 2013 schedule. Home games with key division rivals Michigan and Michigan State are also very tough tests. Pat Fitzgerald has assembled the most talented team in Northwestern history, but can it withstand one of the Big Ten's toughest schedules?
Pat Fitzgerald has been building a consistent winner at Northwestern during his tenure and this fall could be the time it all comes together. The Wildcats return a total of 15 starters, including one of the Big Ten's most explosive players in all-purpose dynamo Venric Mark. Fitzgerald also has two reliable options to call on at quarterback and is pretty deep in pass-catchers. Not to be left out, the defense took a step forward last season and returns experience on each level.
Schedule-wise, Northwestern opens up Big Ten play against Legends division favorite and national title contender Ohio State, but these Wildcats are talented and experienced enough to compete with any team in the league, both at home and on the road. Trips to Madison, Wis., and Lincoln, Neb., won't be easy, but the Wildcats get to host Michigan and Michigan State on their home turf. The pieces are in place for Northwestern to be just as good as it was last season, if not better. That is especially the case if the offensive line jells, the key players stay healthy and the entire team doesn't settle for what it accomplished in 2012.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), No2MinuteWarning.com and NittanyLionsDen.com
Last year was a fantastic ride for the gritty and determined Northwestern program. Ten wins was the result of a growing program continuing to build a winning foundation under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who continues to produce more with less overall talent than many of his counterparts. But that's not to suggest Northwestern is lacking talent, because that is certainly not the case. Venric Mark rushed for over 1,000 yards and emerged as one of the Big Ten's top offensive players who could also do damage on special teams. The Wildcats also have one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten in Kain Colter, but the offensive line could be a concern. With some holes to plug on the line, keeping Colter protected and giving Mark room to work with could be more of an issue this season.
As was the case last season, Northwestern has a defense that will not quit but the talent is not particularly deep in the secondary. Opposing offenses should be able to expose that often enough to keep Northwestern's defense scrambling at times. The linebackers should be fine to hold their own in the middle of the field, so the pressure will be on Northwestern's defensive line to keep the pressure on consistently. This has been one of the problems in recent years as the line seems to break down physically later in games and in the season. This year's schedule is not exactly favorable either, with road games at Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska. Getting Ohio State at home after a bye week could be cause for an upset alert in early October, but I have the Buckeyes taking care of business. I look for Northwestern to be on the outside looking in on the Big Ten Championship Game, but they should absolutely playa role in the Big Ten Legends Division picture in November, with key home games against both Michigan schools in consecutive weeks. I call Northwestern a wild card more than a legitimate contender.
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