2013 Northwestern football's 10 things to know: Breakthroughs and peaks

Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE

We don't yet know whether 2012 was a breakthrough, a peak, or neither for Northwestern. We also don't know what the ceiling is for a team with stronger strengths and, potentially, weaker weaknesses that last year's squad. But we do know that the Wildcats were fun to watch and should be again in 2013. For more Wildcats, visit Sippin' on Purple.

Confused? Check out the glossary here.

1. The breakthrough in present tense

Graphs are useful. Twenty years from now, a progression chart like the one below will pretty clearly tell us, "See right there? That was the peak for Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. And that year right there? That was the breakthrough." But a breakthrough is only a breakthrough until the next one, and a peak is only a peak when you stop rising.

That said, in my 2033 Northwestern preview for SBN, I could very well be describing either 2012 or 2013 as the breakthrough season for Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats. For more than a half-decade, Northwestern oscillated between below-average (84th in the F/+ rankings in 2007, 73rd in 2010) and good (42nd in 2008), rose and fell according to good breaks and experience level, and established itself as decent in every possible way. But the Wildcats were downright good in 2012, cracking the top-30 overall (29th), playing pretty well on both sides of the ball (and dominating in special teams), and winning 10 games in a season for the first time since 1995 and the second time in more than 100 years.

With most of its noteworthy names back in 2013, Northwestern could make a run at 10 wins again this fall. And with recruits taking notice -- there are only four former four- or five-star recruits listed below, but Fitzgerald already has commitments from three in the 2014 recruiting class -- this surge could plant the seeds for sustained quality in years to come. The offense began to come together in 2011, and while the defense was still lacking in the depth department, it was above average in 2012 for the first time in three years.

Of course, with so many Big Ten teams clumped together, somebody's going to be losing a lot of close games and ruing what could have been in 2013. And commitments in July don't automatically result in signees in February. There is still a lot of work to be done here. For all we know, 2012 was the breakthrough and the peak. But we talk about ceilings and floors a lot in these previews, and after last year, we can quite possibly say that both are higher for Northwestern than they have been for a while.

2012 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 29
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
1-Sep at Syracuse 42-41 W 24.9 - 29.0 L
8-Sep Vanderbilt 23-13 W 30.0 - 20.8 W
15-Sep Boston College 22-13 W 28.8 - 28.3 W
22-Sep South Dakota 38-7 W 28.9 - 22.4 W
29-Sep Indiana 44-29 W 37.5 - 32.8 W
6-Oct at Penn State 28-39 L 24.3 - 24.8 L
13-Oct at Minnesota 21-13 W 27.3 - 24.8 W
20-Oct Nebraska 28-29 L 14.6 - 29.0 L
27-Oct Iowa 28-17 W 39.9 - 31.1 W
10-Nov at Michigan 31-38 L 34.5 - 34.0 W
17-Nov at Michigan State 23-20 W 34.0 - 34.0 W
24-Nov Illinois 50-14 W 32.9 - 38.9 L
1-Jan vs. Mississippi State 34-20 W 21.4 - 20.7 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 31.7 42 22.5 29
Adj. Points Per Game 29.2 57 28.5 65

2. Hey kids, do you like fun?

Northwestern began the season with a win over Syracuse that featured three first-half lead changes, a 22-point third-quarter lead for Northwestern, and two more lead changes in the final three minutes. The Wildcats combined for 73 points with Indiana, 67 with Penn State, and 69 with Michigan, and three games in a late-season, four-game stretch were decided by a combined 11 points.

Blown leads made a 10-win season almost seem disappointing -- NU was up 28-17 on Penn State heading into the fourth quarter, 28-16 on Nebraska with six minutes left, and 24-14 on Michigan late in the third quarter and lost all three games -- but one has to admit that, for better and for worse, Northwestern was fun to watch in 2012. And things got more wild and entertaining as the season progressed.

Adj. Points Per Game (first 8 games): Northwestern 27.0, Opponent 26.5 (plus-0.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Northwestern 35.3, Opponent 34.5 (plus-0.8)

The fourth-quarter issues were real and verified by the advanced stats below. In terms of Off. and Def. S&P+, Northwestern ranked 74th and 37th, respectively, in the first quarter, 49th and 57th in the second, fourth and 95th in the third, and 91st and 92nd in the fourth. There is quite obviously still some work to be done here in terms of overall depth, but the late leads showed what the Wildcats might be capable of at some point in the near future. At least, that's what Northwestern fans think, anyway.

Offense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 63 45 33 54
RUSHING 19 35 41 28
PASSING 110 55 24 85
Standard Downs 41 25 47
Passing Downs 60 53 66
Redzone 8 10 4
Q1 Rk 74 1st Down Rk 60
Q2 Rk 49 2nd Down Rk 36
Q3 Rk 4 3rd Down Rk 38
Q4 Rk 91

3. Finish your drives

This week at Football Study Hall, I posted some data related to the art of finishing drives. Sometimes in a given season, teams are good at creating opportunities but don't necessarily take full advantage of those opportunities, and sometimes a team is Northwestern.

The Wildcats advanced inside the opponent's 40 on 52 percent of their drives, an almost perfectly average 61st in the country. But they averaged 4.41 points per trip, 45th.

In terms of what we traditionally think of as the red zone (the 20), Northwestern crossed the 20 on 38 percent of their drives (68th) but averaged 5.66 points per trip (35th). In Red Zone S&P+ above, the Wildcats ranked eighth in the country. The Venric Mark-Kain Coulter run combination proved particularly effective near the end zone; each scored 12 touchdowns, and Northwestern was quite competent in taking advantage of the opportunities it created for itself.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards Comp
Rate
TD INT Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Trevor Siemian 6'3, 210 Jr. *** (5.6) 128 218 1,312 58.7% 6 3 5 2.2% 5.7
Kain Colter 6'0, 190 Sr. *** (5.7) 101 149 872 67.8% 8 4 12 7.5% 5.0
Zack Oliver 6'4, 235 So. *** (5.6) 2 2 14 100.0% 0 0 0 0.0% 7.0
Matt Alviti 6'0, 176 Fr. **** (5.8)






Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
TD Adj.
POE
Venric Mark RB 5'8, 175 Sr. *** (5.6) 226 1,371 6.1 6.5 12 +21.5
Kain Colter QB 6'0, 190 Sr. *** (5.7) 158 958 6.1 5.3 12 +18.4
Mike Trumpy RB 6'1, 210 Sr. *** (5.6) 76 349 4.6 4.2 3 -1.0
Tyris Jones RB 40 143 3.6 2.3 2 -4.2
Treyvon Green RB 5'10, 215 Jr. ** (5.3) 22 73 3.3 7.6 1 -2.3
Trevor Siemian QB 6'3, 210 Jr. *** (5.6) 16 78 4.9 2.5 1 +0.7
Tim Riley FB 8 39 4.9 2.2 0 +0.3
Tim Hanrahan RB 6'0, 195 Jr. NR 8 31 3.9 1.8 0 -1.0
Malin Jones RB 6'0, 205 RSFr. *** (5.7)





Keith Watkins RB 5'11, 175 Fr. *** (5.7)





4. One flashy backfield

Behind a solid line that featured three multi-year starters, the Northwestern running game was a strength, featuring decent efficiency with quality explosiveness. Running back (and punt returner extraordinaire) Mark and triple-threat QB Colter (he was at different points in 2011 the team's best quarterback, running back, and receiver) proved quite capable of going a long way in the open field.

Combined with a perfectly efficient passing game, the Wildcats were quite strong on standard downs, capable of staying on schedule and ahead of the chains most of the time. Both Mark and Coulter are seniors in 2013, as is veteran Mike Trumpy. A couple of relatively highly touted (i.e. high three-star) backs await their turn, but this year belongs to the seniors.

The biggest issue for the run game comes up front. The backfield may be loaded, but the line has to replace three players who combined for 97 career starts. The left side of the line (Brian Mulrow, Patrick Ward) was both experienced and effective, but now the Wildcats start over a bit behind center Brandon Vitabile. Northwestern was good in most run-blocking scenarios and fantastic in short-yardage. Struggles in this regard could produce a lot more passing downs than this offense is equipped to handle.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Yds/
Target
Target
Rate
%SD Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Rashad Lawrence WR-Z 6'2, 185 Sr. *** (5.7) 55 34 321 61.8% 5.8 15.7% 70.9% 5.6 42.3
Christian Jones WR-H 6'3, 225 Jr. *** (5.7) 50 35 412 70.0% 8.2 14.3% 62.0% 8.3 54.3
Tony Jones WR-X 6'0, 185 Jr. *** (5.5) 50 29 335 58.0% 6.7 14.3% 62.0% 6.7 44.2
Demetrius Fields WR-Y 45 33 305 73.3% 6.8 12.9% 68.9% 6.6 40.2
Dan Vitale FB 6'2, 220 So. ** (5.4) 36 28 288 77.8% 8.0 10.3% 72.2% 7.5 38.0
Kain Colter WR 6'0, 190 Sr. *** (5.7) 29 16 169 55.2% 5.8 8.3% 44.8% 5.6 22.3
Venric Mark RB 5'8, 175 Sr. *** (5.6) 29 20 104 69.0% 3.6 8.3% 69.0% 3.4 13.7
Kyle Prater WR-X 6'5, 215 Jr. ***** (6.1) 17 10 54 58.8% 3.2 4.9% 52.9% 3.3 7.1
Cameron Dickerson WR-Z 6'3, 200 So. *** (5.5) 15 9 54 60.0% 3.6 4.3% 60.0% 3.6 7.1
Mike Trumpy RB 6'1, 210 Sr. *** (5.6) 12 8 56 66.7% 4.7 3.4% 75.0% 4.8 7.4
Tyris Jones RB 4 1 15 25.0% 3.8 1.1% 0.0% 1.5 2.0
Tim Riley FB 3 3 26 100.0% 8.7 0.9% 100.0% 5.2 3.4
Pierre Youngblood-Ary WR-Y 6'3, 185 So. *** (5.5) 1 1 1 100.0% 1.0 0.3% 100.0% 0.6 0.1
Mike McHugh WR-X 6'3, 185 RSFr. *** (5.5)








5. One decidedly unflashy receiving corps

Yeah, we'll say "unflashy" is a word now. There was efficiency in the Northwestern passing game; Colter completed 68 percent of his passes, and Northwestern ranked a healthy 24th in Passing Success Rate+. But there was absolutely no explosiveness to be found, no hope of turning a seven-yard pass into a 50-yard touchdown. Northwestern receivers combined to average just 9.9 yards per catch last year, one of the worst averages you'll find. Only one of the top eight wideouts managed better than even a paltry 6.8 yards per target.

Completions are important, and Northwestern returns quite a few targets who produced catch rates of 65 percent or better, but without big plays, offenses quite often bog down. That Northwestern still scored quite a few points was encouraging, especially considering the awkward one-quarterback-for-standard-downs (Colter), one-for-obvious-passing-situations (Trevor Siemian) arrangement.

If there is big-play hope here, it probably comes from Christian Jones; in the final four games of the regular season, he caught 10 passes for 177 yards. Yes, he also caught five for just 39 yards in the bowl game, and yes, he averaged just 9.8 yards per catch in the first seven games of the season, but we're looking for hope here, not proof.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 107.4 3.04 3.38 40.2% 76.8% 18.7% 134.0 4.5% 3.4%
Rank 34 51 49 50 17 57 32 59 16
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Career Starts/Honors/Notes
Brian Mulrow LG 40 career starts
Patrick Ward LT 39 career starts
Brandon Vitabile C 6'3, 300 Jr. *** (5.7) 26 career starts
Neal Deiters RG 18 career starts
Jack Konopka LT 6'5, 285 Jr. *** (5.6) 13 career starts
Chuck Porcelli RT 2 career starts
Paul Jorgensen RT 6'6, 295 Jr. *** (5.6)
Hayden Baker LG 6'2, 280 Jr. NR
Matt Frazier RG 6'4, 290 So. *** (5.6)
Shane Mertz LT 6'8, 295 So. *** (5.6)
Geoff Mogus LG 6'5, 280 So. *** (5.5)
Adam Depietro RG 6'5, 270 RSFr. *** (5.6)
Eric Olson RT 6'6, 285 RSFr. *** (5.6)
Ian Park C 6'4, 295 RSFr. *** (5.5)

Defense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 48 63 66 57
RUSHING 22 63 65 61
PASSING 86 53 76 47
Standard Downs 42 49 43
Passing Downs 95 102 88
Redzone 93 77 101
Q1 Rk 37 1st Down Rk 36
Q2 Rk 57 2nd Down Rk 116
Q3 Rk 95 3rd Down Rk 69
Q4 Rk 92

6. Opponents knew they could pass

Well, opponents not named Mississippi State, anyway.

After two years in the desert -- 101st in Def. F/+ in 2010, 90th in 2011 -- Northwestern's defense discovered competence once again in 2012. That's a good thing. The Wildcats improved to 46th in Def. F/+, one of the biggest leaps in the country.

So as we talk about this unit's weaknesses, use that as a backdrop; it could have been a lot worse, and it was rather recently. But it could still be a lot better. Northwestern was average against both the run and pass and struggled mightily to close drives. The Wildcats coulld leverage you into passing downs pretty well, but they were terribly inefficient on such downs, and if you got into the red zone, you were probably scoring.

And then there were the aforementioned depth issues. The starting ends combined for 65.5 tackles; the backups logged 20.5. The starting tackles combined for 35.5 tackles; the backups combined for 15.5. And while the starting linebackers combined for 246.0 tackles (!), the backups combined for 22.0 (!!).

Passing-downs struggles are particularly demoralizing to thin defenses. You think you're just about off the field, and then you have to start all over again. But while the standard downs defense was solid, NU just couldn't do much to get opponents off the field. Opponents knew they could pass on the Wildcats when they needed to, and they did just that, throwing 74 percent of the time on passing downs (almost eight percent more than the national average) with few repercussions.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 99.9 2.65 3.89 40.0% 73.2% 20.8% 103.4 5.5% 5.3%
Rank 61 24 119 72 94 42 57 35 84
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Tyler Scott DE 6'4, 265 Sr. ** (5.4) 13 34.5 4.7% 12.5 9 0 5 3 0
Quentin Williams DE 13 31.0 4.2% 8.5 4.5 1 3 2 1
Brian Arnfelt DT 13 19.5 2.7% 6 3 0 2 2 1
Sean McEvilly DT 6'5, 275 Jr. *** (5.5) 13 16.0 2.2% 1.5 1 0 1 0 1
Dean Lowry DE 6'6, 230 So. *** (5.7) 13 11.5 1.6% 3 1 0 1 0 1
Chance Carter DT 6'3, 270 Jr. *** (5.6) 13 10.0 1.4% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Deonte Gibson DE 6'3, 240 So. *** (5.6) 12 8.0 1.1% 2.5 2 0 0 0 0
Will Hampton DT 6'3, 285 Sr. *** (5.5) 13 5.5 0.8% 2 0 0 1 0 0
Roderick Goodlow DE 3 2.5 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Max Chapman DE 6'3, 230 So. *** (5.6) 11 1.0 0.1% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Ifeadi Odenigbo DE 6'3, 220 RSFr. **** (5.9)
Greg Kuhar DT 6'3, 275 RSFr. **** (5.8)
Tyler Lancaster DT 6'3, 250 Fr. *** (5.7)






Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Damien Proby MIKE 6'0, 235 Sr. *** (5.7) 13 93.0 12.7% 4.5 0.5 0 3 0 0
David Nwabuisi WILL 13 79.5 10.9% 8.5 1 3 5 0 2
Chi Chi Ariguzo WILL 6'3, 220 Jr. *** (5.6) 13 73.5 10.0% 10.5 3 2 5 0 4
Drew Smith SAM 6'1, 205 So. *** (5.5) 13 14.0 1.9% 3 2 0 1 0 0
Collin Ellis SAM 6'2, 225 Jr. *** (5.5) 11 7.0 1.0% 1 1 0 0 0 0
Timmy Vernon MIKE 6'3, 225 Sr. NR 13 1.0 0.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jaylen Prater WILL 6'0, 215 RSFr. ** (5.4)






7. Find a blitz

Ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams combined for 13.5 sacks, many of which came on standard downs. These are solid totals, but the pass rush disappeared on second- and third-and-long. Linebackers combined for just 7.5 sacks, and while the best blitzer (Chi Chi Ariguzo) is back and new potential starter Drew Smith (still a second-stringer as of mid-April) made a promising two sacks in minimal playing time, it's safe to say that improvement is still needed here.

Really, the biggest improvement in terms of passing downs pass rush might come from up front. Two stars of the 2012 recruiting class enter the rotation after redshirt seasons, and one of them is Ifeadi Odenigbo, who at 220 pounds probably isn't big enough to be an every-down presence but could certainly contribute as a pass rush specialist.

If the Wildcats can figure out how to harass quarterbacks a bit more effectively, the line's strengths -- slicing into the backfield against the run -- could be more pronounced. Active tackle Brian Arnfelt is gone, but Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly each have potential, and the linebacking corps does still return Ariguzo and Damien Proby.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ibraheim Campbell S 5'11, 205 Jr. *** (5.6) 13 74.0 10.1% 0.5 0 2 12 2 0
Jared Carpenter S 13 53.0 7.2% 1 0 1 6 1 1
Quinn Evans CB 12 33.5 4.6% 0.5 0 0 3 0 0
Daniel Jones CB 5'11, 170 Jr. ** (5.4) 11 31.0 4.2% 0 0 0 4 0 0
Nick VanHoose CB 6'0, 185 So. ** (5.4) 10 29.5 4.0% 0.5 0 3 7 0 3
Demetrius Dugar CB 9 20.0 2.7% 0 0 1 2 0 0
Traveon Henry S 6'1, 200 So. *** (5.7) 10 19.0 2.6% 0 0 0 1 0 0
C.J. Bryant CB 5'11, 175 Jr. *** (5.5) 10 10.0 1.4% 0 0 0 0 1 1
Davion Fleming S 5'10, 200 Sr. *** (5.5) 12 10.0 1.4% 0.5 0 0 0 1 0
Jarrell Williams CB 5'11, 190 So. *** (5.6) 9 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Jimmy Hall S 6'2, 205 Jr. *** (5.6) 9 4.5 0.6% 0.5 0 0 1 0 0
Hunter Bates S 5 4.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Mike Eshun CB 5'8, 170 Jr. NR 5 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Dwight White CB 5'10, 178 RSFr. *** (5.5)
Godwin Igwebuike DB 6'0, 190 Fr. *** (5.7)
Kyle Quiero DB 6'3, 190 Fr. *** (5.7)

8. The names are back

There are certainly question marks here. We don't know if the pass rush will improve, and in losing safety Jared Carpenter and corners Quinn Evans and Demetrius Dugar, Northwestern finds its defensive backfield depleted a decent amount.

But the names return. (I'm not talking about the quality of the actual names themselves, of course, but it's difficult to beat Chi Chi Ariguzo, Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, and Ifeadi Odenigbo in that regard.) Ariguzo was one of the Big Ten's better play-makers, Ibraheim Campbell was perhaps the player most directly responsible for Northwestern's solid big-play prevention (the problem in the passing game was preventing the steady eight-yard gains, not 80-yard gains), and Tyler Scott really is a solid pass rusher from the end position. The star power is solid here; we just don't know if the depth is any better, and that's a problem.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Brandon Williams 6'2, 185 Sr. 64 39.9 2 18 21 60.9%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB TB%
Steve Flaherty 83 59.7 16 19.3%
Jeff Budzien 5'11, 165 Sr. 1 45 0 0.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jeff Budzien 5'11, 165 Sr. 50-50 13-13 100.0% 6-7 85.7%
Steve Flaherty 0-0 1-1 100.0% 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Venric Mark KR 5'8, 175 Sr. 21 19.8 0
Tony Jones KR 6'0, 185 Jr. 7 23.9 0
Tim Hanrahan KR 6'0, 195 Jr. 2 11.0 0
Venric Mark PR 5'8, 175 Sr. 15 18.7 2
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 4
Net Punting 46
Net Kickoffs 101
Touchback Pct 106
Field Goal Pct 2
Kick Returns Avg 75
Punt Returns Avg 4

9. One fine special teams unit

Kickoffs really weren't Northwestern's thing; the Wildcats weren't very good in kick coverage, and their primary kick returner (Venric Mark) didn't average even 20 yards per kick return. But this unit still ranked fourth in Special Teams F/+ thanks to solid hang-time from punter Brandon Williams, tremendous place-kicking from Jeff Budzien (perfect from inside 40 yards, almost perfect from outside), and ridiculous punt returning from Mark.

All three of those players return. As with the rest of this Northwestern team, the strengths of this unit could be as strong or stronger, and the weaknesses might be just as weak.

2013 Schedule & Projection Factors

2013 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
31-Aug at California 73
7-Sep Syracuse 54
14-Sep Western Michigan 96
21-Sep Maine NR
5-Oct Ohio State 10
12-Oct at Wisconsin 16
19-Oct Minnesota 72
26-Oct at Iowa 44
2-Nov at Nebraska 21
16-Nov Michigan 28
23-Nov Michigan State 18
30-Nov at Illinois 94
Five-Year F/+ Rk 51
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 54
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* +14 / +15.5
TO Luck/Game -0.6
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin** -4.3

10. A top-25 team could go 10-2

Northwestern's 2013 team should look quite a bit like its 2012 team, one that, despite its weaknesses, finished in the F/+ top 30 and was a handful of plays away from 12-0. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 projections are conservative here -- that's what happens when your five-year averages and recent recruiting are both average and not great -- but it's certainly easy to see the Wildcats producing a level similar to that of last season.

What I don't know for sure is how much better they could be. And that's obviously because of the "strengths are stronger, weaknesses might be weaker" aspect. Northwestern couldn't close out drives on defense, and there's no indication that this will simply improve just because. The Wildcats had no big-play threats in the passing game, and there's no reason to think that's changed. Pat Fitzgerald did an incredible job of making sure his squad achieved near its capabilities, but I'm not sure the capabilities are much stronger in 2013.

But I can say this: If Northwestern can improve to just top-20 or top-25 level, there are a lot more wins to be found this fall. Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State all visit Evanston, and while trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska await (and it should be noted that the season opener against Cal's new Air Raid in Berkeley could be quite difficult for a team with a minimal pass rush and thin secondary), this schedule has certainly taken shape rather favorably. A top-20 team could go 10-2; but a top-40 team could go 6-6. Which one is Northwestern?

Make no mistake, though: whether top-20 or top-40, Northwestern should be damn fun to watch again.

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