Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 57 Northwestern Wildcats

Rant Sports keeps on fightin’ the offseason good fight by bringing you 100 college football previews in 100 days and checking in at the 59th slot are those smarty pants student-athletes from Evanston, the Northwestern Wildcats of the Big Ten.

Streaky. That became the adjective most associated with Pat Fitzgerald‘s team recently as wins occur in exhilarating bunches and losses mount up like depressing snow on the driveway. In 2010, Northwestern vaulted out of the gate to a 5-0 record only to finish 7-6. Last year, the Wildcats lost five games in a row from mid-September to late October before rebounding with a four-game winning streak. Joy, as it is prone to do, vanished rather quickly when Michigan State and Texas A&M (Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas) dealt the Purple People Eaters double-digit losses to close 2011 at 6-7.

No one expects annual Rose Bowl trips from the campus that churns out sports writers like Chris Broussard invents sources. And with Fitzgerald signed through 2020 at his alma mater and four straight bowl appearances, there’s stability where plenty of universities might reflexively cringe for a coaching search.

So what does 2012 hold?

Impact Players

Offense

Replacing a three-year starter at quarterback represents the glaring offensive question. Dan Persa finished his senior season in Evanston by tossing for 2,376 yards and 17 touchdowns. In his stead, Kain Colter brings a bit of everything to the position. I type this because he played like he wanted the ball on every single snap, in every single play, literally. Colter led the Wildcats with 654 yards rushing, notched 466 receiving yards and passed for 673 yards (on 67% completion rate with 6 touchdowns and a pick) in Persa’s injury absence. His dual-threat ability promises to open up a rising star of an offensive coordinator Mike McCall‘s playbook.

As former 5-star recruit Kyle Prater waits on the NCAA to rule on his eligibility, it’s probably Colter who is begging hardest for the wide out’s inclusion. Northwestern has never been a haven for mega-prep’s but proximity to home played a role in Prater’s defection from Southern California. If the NCAA denies his hardship waiver, senior Demetrius Fields likely earns the majority of passing looks from Colter. Fields produced 3 touchdowns and 382 yards in 2011, not bad considering his output placed him fourth at the position but equaling Jeremy Ebert‘s 75 receptions, 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns from last year might be asking a bit much.

Defense

On the line, ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams return coming off a season where they combined for 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Those numbers won’t impress the LSU defensive line but which tandem is winning Trivial Pursuit? David Nwabuisi regulates at middle linebacker and if the senior can replicate 2011, it will alleviate much of the youth behind him in the secondary. 8.5 tackles for loss, 61.5 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 3 passes broken up are statistics of a man you don’t ask how to spell his last name. You simply write down what sounds close and hope for the best.

Schedule

A fifth straight bowl game at Northwestern seems a rousing success to me. But I’m no diehard of the Wildcats and I wonder whether 6-7, 7-6 is enough for the faithful in Evanston. Syracuse, Boston College and Vanderbilt highlight the non-conference slate with the Commodores matchup a tasty tilt between two coaches constantly mentioned in the hiring rumor mill. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fitzgerald’s squad win their first five games. But as has been tradition in recent seasons, a span of Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State could produce four losses in succession. Is 6-6 too cliche at this point? It’s hard to generate any confidence in a recreation of 1995 until the wins accumulate at a steadier rate.

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