Northwestern won 10 games in 2012, ended the season ranked after the school's first bowl win since 1949, and lost practically none of its most important players. It's confusing, but the Wildcats have turned the corner and could be in for an intriguing 2013.
The Wildcats' symbol in spring practices was 5:03, Pat Fitzgerald's reminder to his team that they were five minutes away from going undefeated in 2012, blowing double-digit fourth quarter leads against Penn State and Nebraska before allowing Michigan to tie the game after a desperation Hail Mary and win in overtime. They achieved unprecedented success, but somehow, they're aiming higher -- although they'll need to get through the meat of the Big Ten to do it.
A look at their schedule:
2013 Northwestern schedule
Projections from Football Outsiders' 2013 college football almanac.
The Wildcats are truly talented: Venric Mark is a tiny lightning bolt who earned his All-American specialist nods and was a heck of a running back as well. Quarterback Kain Colter is the perfect foil to him in an option attack, but he splits snaps with Trevor Siemian in a one-two punch combination that was surprisingly effective and controversy-free. And Phil Steele's all-Big Ten projections featured six defensive players from a team that allowed just 22.5 points per game in 2012, led by fearsome defensive end Tyler Scott.
They'll have opportunities to show off that talent. They have a decent chance of sweeping the non-con schedule, despite two matchups against BCS opponents, with games against Cal, Syracuse and Western Michigan at night.
Then, their first Big Ten game will be against Ohio State under the lights at Ryan Field. The Buckeyes are a national contender after going undefeated last year, and the Wildcats could enter that game ranked and undefeated. Without many marquee matchups Week 5, some have suggested the nighttime ESPN/ABC game could be Evanston's first appearance on College Gameday since 1995. The two teams haven't played since 2008 due to various scheduling quirks, and Northwestern's marketing staff has already begun hyping up one of the biggest regular season matchups the team has played in recent memory.
But if the Wildcats want to get ten wins again, they'll have to do it against the meat of the Big Ten schedule: they're the only team on the Legends side of things that draws Ohio State and Wisconsin, probably the two most fearsome Leaders teams.