But go ahead and count me out of that particular group. It may seem as if I am picking on the Wildcats and their head coach lately, but I can promise you that I am not.
I’m just not ready to buy what others are selling.
Not quite yet, anyway.
Why you might ask? For me it’s pretty simple really. While I do think this team has the potential for a special season, there are three main issues holding me back. I don’t think they have the pieces on the offensive line, the defensive backfield was pedestrian in 2012, and the schedule isn’t as “manageable” as many are making it out to be.
Those three issues combined are enough to make me a little uneasy about the Wildcats (or any team for that matter) heading into a new season.
I am fully aware of the fact that the team is returning 15 starters from last year’s 10-win team, including quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But the holes that are there for Northwestern could potentially become gaping ones…especially on the offensive side of the ball. Pat Fitzgerald will be without three starters (guards Neal Deiters and Brian Mulroe, plus left tackle Patrick Ward) from last season’s offensive line.
That is a lot to lose for any program let alone a program that had basically all freshman and sophomores in the two-deep rotation from a year ago. If the refurbished offensive line is not able to protect Colter in the pocket or open up holes for Mark out of the backfield, the Northwestern offense could end up being pretty vulnerable next fall.
While the defensive side of the ball returns seven starters, the unit did lose the team’s second leading tackler in middle linebacker David Nwabuisi and defensive end Quentin Williams. This isn’t the only issue for the Wildcats defense, however. To me, the biggest question mark is the defensive backfield. Northwestern was dead last in the Big Ten last season in pass defense, giving up 250 yards per game. If this team is going to compete for a Legends Division title — let alone a conference championship — the pass defense is going to have to step up in 2013 if the Wildcats are going to have any chance at all.
So now that my offensive and defensive concerns are out of the way, let’s take a look at the schedule.
Remind me again as to why I should believe this is a schedule that provides a manageable route to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis?
Northwestern could easily begin the 2013 season with a loss when they travel to Berkeley, California to face the Cal Bears. The following week the Wildcats play host to the Syracuse Orange before finishing off the non-conference portion of the schedule against Western Michigan and Maine. While it is conceivable for people to think this team could/should be 4-0 before their showdown with the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ryan Field on Oct. 5, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they were 3-1 (or 2-2) heading into that game.
The week following the matchup with the Buckeyes doesn’t get much easier for Fitzgerald and company as they have to travel to Madison, Wisconsin to face a Wisconsin program that utterly embarrassed the Wildcats the last time they visited Camp Randall back in 2010 to the tune of 70-23.
Adding to the potential gauntlet are another tough road trip to Nebraska, and home games against the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans in back-to-back weekends towards the end of November. While it is a luxury for Northwestern in getting Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State at home this season, I just don’t understand how many are saying that this could be a manageable road to a potential BCS bowl berth?
If I had to make a prediction right now, I would say that the best case/worst case scenario for Northwestern is 9-3 (losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska) and 7-5 (losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, California and Michigan).
Remember; this is a program that just won its first bowl game in over 60 years last season and ten or more games in a season since 1995.
Expectations are great, but let’s see what Fitzgerald and the Wildcats will do with the bulls-eye on their backs in 2013.