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Top 25 team preview: No. 22 Northwestern Wildcats

Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Venric Mark will look to build off his breakout '12, when he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Northwestern's 2013 schedule
DateOpponent
Aug. 31at Cal
Sept. 7vs. Syracuse
Sept. 14vs. Western Michigan
Sept. 21vs. Maine
Oct. 5vs. Ohio State
Oct. 12at Wisconsin
Oct. 19vs. Minnesota
Oct. 26at Iowa
Nov. 2at Nebraska
Nov. 16vs. Michigan
Nov. 23vs. Michigan State
Nov. 30at Illinois

The Big Ten title game is Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.

Top 25 Previews
1
Alabama
By Lars Anderson
 
2
Stanford
By Stewart Mandel
 
3
Texas A&M
By Stewart Mandel
 
4
Ohio State
By Stewart Mandel
 
5
Oregon
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
 
6
South Carolina
By Thayer Evans
 
7
Louisville
By Zac Ellis
 
8
Notre Dame
By Lars Anderson
 
9
Florida
By Andy Staples
 
10
Clemson
By Zac Ellis
 
11
Texas
By Stewart Mandel
 
12
Georgia
By Lars Anderson
 
13
Florida State
By Andy Staples
 
14
LSU
By Lars Anderson
 
15
Michigan State
By Ben Glicksman
 
16
TCU
By Dan Greene
 
17
Baylor
By Elizabeth McGarr McCue
 
18
Michigan
By Ted Keith
 
19
Oklahoma
By Richard Deitsch
 
20
Boise State
By Lars Anderson
 
21
UCLA
By R.J. Rico
 
22
Northwestern
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
 
23
Vanderbilt
By Zac Ellis
 
24
Northern Illinois
By Martin Rickman
 
25
Virginia Tech
By Zac Ellis
 

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.

For more college football preview content, check out SI's 2013 schedule guide, four teams that can beat Alabama package, preseason All-America Team, media roundtable and much more.

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.

Schedule analysis

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.

Key stat

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.

Breakout player

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.

X-factor

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.

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