One of the most consistent teams as of late have been the Northwestern Wildcats. They've went to bowl games the last four seasons and have had at least one win over a ranked team every year during this tenure. For a program that only has been to bowl games 10 times in its history, that's pretty substantial. Pat Fitzgerald has taken a program that frankly, was a whipping post for years, evidenced by the program's .422 winning percentage, and turned them into a relatively respectable team. The Wildcats aren't exactly rewriting the record books with 6-9 win seasons over the last four years, but for the Big Ten's most prestigious academic institution, it's a big step forward.
Northwestern began 2011 with high hopes, but they weren't able to capitalize on the preseason hype. In fact, before the season began, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa had been mentioned in the Heisman discussion. However, he was injury plagued throughout the year, leading to a lot of playing time for Kain Colter. Despite Persa's 519 rushing yards in 2010 and 164 carries, he only had 79 carries and 32 rushing yards in 2011. This was the big change for Northwestern's offense in 2011, an immobile Dan Persa. Kain Colter did help make up for this with 654 rushing yards, but it was still a major setback.
Statistically, Northwestern's defense was actually better in 2011 than 2010 according to the advanced statistics released by Football Outsiders. They were ranked #93 in 2010 and #91 in 2011, so at least a little improvement. Despite these lower advanced rankings, Northwestern had the #66 scoring defense, #84 rushing defense, #71 passing defense, and #80 total defense. Last year's defense was average at best and definitely one of the weakest in the Big Ten, but did at least decently in scoring defense.
To me, the main tale of Northwestern's 2011 team was its failure to capitalize on great opportunities. Some of these were not that fault, but some of the late game collapses were simply astounding. In three key games, the Wildcats blew their chances. Against rival Illinois when they allowed 21 points in the 4th quarter, against Iowa, when they allowed 24 points in the 4th quarter, and against Michigan when they allowed 28 unanswered points in the 2nd half, after leading the game going into halftime. Even if Northwestern could have avoided just one of these losses, they would have avoided a losing record last year. With hope of a solid Big Ten performance and a potential Heisman winner, going 6-7 and blowing such key games was a major letdown.
Despite this, 2012's Wildcat squad is shaping up a bit different. There is no longer the hope of a Heisman contender and most don't expect a lot from Northwestern, but there are at least some reasons for hope. They return 12 starters, 5 on offense, 5 on defense, and both their punter and kicker. That's a lot lower than some squads like Ohio State, who returns 18 starters, but the key stat not mentioned in this is the return of Kain Colter. He may have not been the "official" starter, but he did lead the team in rushing and had some solid numbers both passing and receiving. This is the major thing that should give Wildcat fans hope for next year. There is at least some experience coming back at the most important position on the football field.
One question mark will be the offensive line. The team will have to replace Al Netter and Ben Burkett, who played the left side last year. Northwestern should be able to put together a capable line by time the season starts, but if this line plays inconsistently, as it did in the spring, it could mean trouble for Colter and the offense. Another major question is the defense. They weren't spectacular last year, return only 5 starters from last season, and have some major holes in the secondary. As mentioned, Northwestern was #71 in passing defense last season and will need to replace 3 starters from that unit. That's not something that looks good from the outside. Ibraheim Campbell should be alright at the safety position, but he will still only be a sophomore. The Wildcats will have to ask a lot out of some inexperienced players to make the defense, and especially the secondary, respectable.
Northwestern does bring in a respectable 2012 recruiting class. The Wildcats bring in 21 new recruits, Rivals has the class ranked #60 in the country, and they bring in many players in positions of need. They may be true freshman and extremely inexperienced, but there are 5 defensive backs in this class, 5 offensive linemen, and some key wide receivers. The most significant incoming wide receiver is Kyle Prater. He was a 5* recruit that committed to USC, but has since decided to transfer to Northwestern. If he is eligible to play next year, he's widely speculated to instantly become Northwestern's wide receiver. Demetrius Fields should be solid at the wide receiver position, but he doesn't have the same potential as Prater.
Northwestern has some nice pieces and a decent recruiting class (especially by Northwestern's standards) to accompany their returns, but it's going to be a tough year for the Wildcats. Not only do they have the challenge of finding replacements to maintain or improve their current performance, they have a pretty tough schedule ahead. Nothing brutal like Michigan's 2012 schedule, but they begin the season with Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College. None of these three teams are fantastic, but they aren't pushovers either, especially the Syracuse game on the road. Getting through these three games with at least 2 wins is essential if Northwestern wants to continue its bowl streak.
Why do I say this? Look at Northwestern's remaining schedule. They get Indiana and Minnesota, but they have a 4 game stretch against Nebraska, Iowa, then on the road to face Michigan and MSU. If that isn't a challenging stretch, I'm not sure what constitutes one. If Northwestern is favored in even one of these games in this 4 game stretch, I will be surprised. The Wildcats could very well lose all four of these games. Add in a tough road game against Penn State (it is challenging, at least for now) and a rivalry game against Illinois, and the Wildcats could easily go 2-6 or 3-5 in Big Ten play. Given that, they have to win all their non-conference games or at least 3 to make a bowl game. This is why the most important stretch of the season is the beginning for Northwestern.
I think the Wildcats will be decent next year, but the schedule and offseason losses are just too significant for the Wildcats to be anything except a minor factor next year. Fitzgerald and Northwestern are moving in the right direction, but they still need to add consistency to their play if they want to be a bigger factor. They will have to come out of the gate hot and keep it up if they want a chance to get back to a bowl game. I do think they can get to a bowl game, but I really think their win limit is about 7, unless something extraordinary happens. If a guy like Prater can come in and make a big impact, they have a chance, but otherwise, look for 6 or 7 wins. Kyle Curtiss, our football writer, has them at 8-4, but I see 6-6 as a more realistic record.
Big Ten Finish: 7th
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Small
Upset Status: Medium
Bowl Status: Bid to Average Bowl