Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Big Ten Football Previews – Part III

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...

Team: Northwestern Wildcats

Tidbits … The Wildcats won nine games in 2008 - the most since the 1996 team went 9-3. It was only the fifth time in school history that the team recorded nine wins. The others? 1898, 1903, 1995 and 1996.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction/actual: 6-6, 2-6 (T-9th) - At Large Bid / 9-4, 5-3 (T-4th) - Alamo Bowl
2007 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th)
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 4-8, 2-6 (T-8th)
2005 Prediction/actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd) – Sun Bowl
2004 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 5-3 (4th)
2003 Prediction/actual: 3-9, 0-8 (11th) / 6-7, 4-4 (T-7th) – Motor City Bowl
2002 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-6th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction/actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 5 offense, 8 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Mike Kafka, DE Corey Wootton, FS Brad Phillips, SS Brendan Smith

Key Losses: QB C.J. Bacher, RB Tyrell Sutton, DT John Gill, DE Kevin Mims, K Amando Villareal

Looking Back ... Wow! To anyone who doubted the move to Pat Fitzgerald in the wake of Randy Walker's sudden death a few years back, shame on you. Fitzgerald turned in one of the best seasons in school history, rattling off nine wins and making a nice run at Mizzou in the Alamo Bowl. And just think - within the losses was one to - gasp - Indiana. That team had a nice mix of power and finesse on offense and a defense that could step up on occasion. How does it look for 2009? Well, that remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, Pat Fitzgerald is another big season away from myriad big program coaching opportunities.

Outlook - Offense ... If the Wildcats take a step back in 2009, it will be due to the loss of proven weapons from the offensive arsenal. Mike Kafka got some good experience at quarterback last fall, but Bacher had that winning knack about him. So did Tyrell Sutton, who might be the most missed of them all on the offensive side of the ball. Having to replace three solid wide receivers is no small task either. But enough gloom and doom. What Northwestern does have is a line that returns three starters and Kafka. The key will be for a young back and receiver or two to step up early, otherwise 2009 could be a side step or step back before the next program growth spurt.

Outlook - Defense ... Okay, so how often do we use Northwestern and defense as a strength in the same sentence? Truthfully, not often. That said, the Wildcats have produced some great defenders over the past 10-15 years. The trouble has been fielding defense that is rock solid from top to bottom. Well, this year might be the year. Eight starters return and there are a few others in the starting mix who have seen time but battled injury a season ago. Only two games really got away from the purple and black last year (OSU and MSU) but the defense will have to be even tighter this year if the 'cats are to have success. The entire front four looks good, potentially really good, but each has battled injuries over the years. The back seven is flat out good. The linebackers are quick and athletic, the secondary deep. If this unit can stay healthy, Northwestern will win a few this year with its defense.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Northwestern will miss place kicker Amando Villareal but Stefan Demos may be able to handle all the kicking duties this fall. Northwestern also lost plenty of return game weapons, but the depth that is battling for time at tailback will be a nice positive for that part of special teams this fall.

9/5 - TOWSON
9/19 - at Syracuse
10/3 - at Purdue
10/10 - MIAMI-OH.
10/17 - at Michigan State
10/24 - INDIANA
10/31 - PENN STATE
11/7 - at Iowa
11/14 - at Illinois

Key Games:
10/3 - at Purdue, 10/17 - at Michigan State, 11/14 - at Illinois

Prediction ... If only... if only this team had proven firepower returning to the offensive side of the ball, I could easily see better than I am predicting. The schedule isn't bad at all, with no Buckeyes and Penn State at home. This would be a year to get Michigan as they still rebuild, so that is a bummer but in general, it is a good schedule. The OOC slate is ripe for a whipping and that will power NU into yet another bowl game...

OOC: 4-0 (no one here strikes fear into anyone!)
B10: 3-5 (win over Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana)
Overall: 7-5, T-7th in the conference, AT LARGE bowl berth

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