Rant Sports College Football Top 100: No. 28 Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern is coming off the program’s third 10-win season and first bowl win since 1949 so expectations for the Wildcats have never been higher as Pat Fitzgerald enters his eighth season as coach of his alma mater. The ‘Cats have a number of offensive weapons and an underrated defense, but will they be able to match last year’s historic run and take the next step to becoming an elite program?

Offense: Not many schools run a two-quarterback system, but Northwestern makes it work with Trevor Siemian and the versatile Kain Colter operating behind center. Siemian is the passer and Colter the runner, receiver and thrower. Running back Venric Mark is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and is coming off a 1,366-yard season. He tied with Colter for the team lead with 12 rushing touchdowns. Mark would be on the short list for Heisman contenders at a traditional football powerhouse.

Venric Mark-Northwestern Wildcats

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The receivers lack star power where one player would command consistent double teams, but they aren’t lacking for quantity as they have a deep stable of targets for Siemian and Colter. Last year’s top three receivers Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Rashad Lawrence all return, but the x-factor is USC transfer Kyle Prater who should flourish in his second year in the offense. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound receiver could help the ‘Cats improve on their No. 110 passing offense from 2012. Another weapon in the pass and run game is “superback” Dan Vitale who plays the hybrid fullback/ tight end spot for NU and emerged at the end of his freshman season.

The offensive line is a concern with three starters gone and starting tackles Jack Konopka and Paul Jorgensen recovering from injury, but center Brandon Vitabile may be the best at his position in the conference. The unit will need to gel in summer to keep the high-powered rushing attack running smoothly.

Defense: Northwestern has produced one of the more underrated units in the conference. After their opening game when they allowed 41 at Syracuse they held their opponents to an average of 21 points the rest of the season. The unit is led by all-Big Ten end Tyler Scott who finished second in the conference with nine sacks, linebackers Damian Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo, cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Ibraheim Campbell.

Tyler Scott-Northwestern WIldcats

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of Scott the defensive line has question marks and needs Will Hampton, Dean Lowry and Sean McEvilly to step up to take the  pressure off Scott who will face constant double teams. Despite the loss of David Nwabuisi at linebacker the duo of Ariguzo and Proby should thrive and earn all-Big Ten honors. The secondary will need to be better after finishing last in pass defense in the conference and will be without key contributors Jared Carpenter, Demetrius Dugar and Quinn Evans.

Schedule: at California, Syracuse, Western Michigan, Maine, Ohio State at Wisconsin,  Minnesota, at Iowa, at Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State at Illinois

Northwestern should start out 4-0 before hosting the Buckeyes in what will be the game of the year for the Wildcats. The prime-time atmosphere will have many in Evanston thinking upset, but that will be tough. The game at Wisconsin will be interesting, but I think that will be a big road win for NU. After letting games vs. Nebraska and Michigan get away last year I think they manage a split.

Bottom Line: This is the golden age for Northwestern and a second 10-win season and another New Year’s Day bowl should be expected. Fitzgerald said after the Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State, “this is just the beginning,”and he’s exactly right.

It’s a great time to be a Northwestern fan.

Patrick’s a college football writer for Rant Sports and radio host on Sportstownchicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickASchmidt and add him to your Google network.

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