|Northwestern's 2013 schedule|
The Big Ten title game is Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.
Can Alabama make a run at a third straight national title? Can Ohio State replicate last year's 12-0 campaign? Can Oregon maintain its standard of success under new leadership? With the college football season approaching, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25.
The case for
The Wildcats' plan of attack remains the same as it was in 2012, when they went 10-3: Pound teams with a multifaceted ground game and make big plays on special teams. Northwestern presents a true dual threat at quarterback. Senior athlete Kain Colter starts, but he'll share time with junior Trevor Siemian, who's more of a pure passer. The two quarterbacks and the breakaway speed of senior running back Venric Mark will allow coordinator Mick McCall to switch tactics and surprise opposing defenses. In addition, last year's starting receivers (junior Christian Jones and senior Rashad Lawrence) return, along with one of the nation's best kickers in senior Jeff Budzien.
Then there's Pat Fitzgerald, a player's coach who understands the challenge since he played in Evanston in the 1990s. The 'Cats trailed for a grand total of 4:45 last year. Expect them to hold lots of leads again.
The case against
The secondary didn't surrender too many big plays last season, but it gave up a costly one at Michigan: a 53-yard pass at the end of regulation that set up a 38-31 overtime loss. Three of the four starters return, but if they have not improved it could lead to more late-game difficulties for Northwestern.
The Wildcats may have to dig out of an early hole after their opener at Cal. Four weeks later they start Big Ten play, hosting Ohio State (against which they are 1-28 since 1972) then traveling to Wisconsin. Playing both Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23) in Evanston will help.
16: The number of sacks Northwestern allowed in 2012, a marked improvement from the 43 it surrendered in '11. The only problem? Northwestern must replace three starters on the offensive line (two of whom were All Big-Ten selections), including left tackle Patrick Ward.
LB Chi Chi Ariguzo: Ariguzo stood out as a redshirt sophomore -- he was an All-Big Ten honorable mention and tied for the conference lead with four fumbles recovered -- and should be a leader on Fitzgerald's defense this season. He and fellow returnee Damien Proby will anchor a unit that was successful in stints. After recording a team-high 7.5 tackles for loss last season, Ariguzo should look to capitalize on plenty of blitz opportunities.
Freshman to watch
DE Ifeadi Odenigbo: Odenigbo was set to be a regular in last year's D-line rotation as a freshman but appeared only once before suffering a season-ending left shoulder injury. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound end should start and use his speed to rack up sacks.
S Ibraheim Campbell: The most experienced player in Northwestern's defensive backfield, Campbell will be responsible for helping prevent the big gains that haunted Northwestern at the worst times in 2012. He allowed Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree to get behind him on a last-gasp downfield heave that set up the game-tying field goal in an eventual overtime loss to the Wolverines. For the 'Cats to challenge for a Big Ten crown, he and the secondary will need to be better.
2013 stat projections (By RotoWire.com)
QB Kain Colter: 1,020 passing yards, 9 TDs; 850 rushing yards, 10 TDs
QB Trevor Siemian: 1,725 passing yards, 11 TDs
RB Venric Mark: 1,120 rushing yards, 12 TDs; 180 receiving yards, 2 TDs
Coach speak: Pat Fitzgerald
SI: Has this program reached the point where fans can expect seven to 10 wins every year?
PF: It better have, or I'm going to lose my job. And it better not be seven, or I'm not going to be in a very good humor.
SI: What was the difference between winning 10 games as a player in 1995 and as a coach last year?
PF: My body hurt a lot less this time around.
SI: What do you expect from preseason All-Big Ten running back Venric Mark this season?
PF: I think he's one of the more dynamic playmakers in all aspects of college football.
SI: Do your players feel that they have a bull's-eye on their backs following a 10-win season?
PF: I'm not as worried about that as much as I am about continuing to have the focus, the hunger and the hunter mentality that we've had.
SI: What is the program's biggest strength?
PF: Our biggest strength right now is confidence. I think we've got a belief system right now, that if we stick to who we are and what we do and continue to improve, that we can compete and beat anybody that we play.