College football fans are a visionary populace. They are always looking ahead to the next thing. When the season ends, as it did in wholly nondramatic fashion at Sun Life Stadium Monday night, the focus shifts to the following fall, and where teams stand heading into the next slate of games. Northwestern punctuated an impressive 10-win season with a decisive Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. There’s a very strong possibility the Wildcats will end up in next season’s top 25, but exactly where do they fit? We’re laying out our arguments, based not on national perception but our own beliefs on where Northwestern belongs in the polls. To be clear, these arguments reflect where we think Northwestern should be ranked, not where it will be ranked. See the difference? Ok, cool.
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Take One: by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Subjective polls have always been a thorny topic for me. I’ve always had my doubts, and will continue to have my doubts, about what they really mean. So much is rooted in the imperceptible (particularly in the preseason) – fuzzy eye-tests and recruiting rankings and historical precedent and coaching acumen. It’s all very vague and disorderly. But alas, we live in a world where polls and rankings and, my personal favorite, “power rankings,” rule the day, where fans crave convenient ordered snapshots of the college football landscape. That is, in essence, what polls are. Like it or not, polls aren’t going away anytime soon. Their power will be diminished somewhat by the advent of the playoff and selection committee in 2014, but for next season at least, they matter quite a bit.
Gauging Northwestern’s place in the rankings requires an evaluation of personnel holdovers and departures. The Wildcats lose eight starters, four on offense and four on defense: OG Brian Mulroe, OT Patrick Ward, WR Demetrius Fields, OG Neal Deiters, LB David Nwabuisi, DT Brian Arnfelt, DE Quentin Williams, S Jared Carpenter. None of those players will be particularly easy to replace. Fields was a sure-handed target. Williams was a consistent force off the edge. Arnfelt morphed into a bona fide space-eating block. Each loss represents a retrenchment on this year’s winning formula.
One of the good things about having a young roster is the security against personnel turnover. Northwestern has capable replacements waiting in the wings for each of the aforementioned graduates. And I’m not talking about true freshmen. Players who either a) redshirted or b) earned limited playing time this year will step into starting roles. That is a good situation to have when you’re trying to replace eight starters. Most importantly, Northwestern returns the most important player (s) at the most important position on the field: quarterback. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian will be back, and with another year of finding an optimal two quarterback balance, the position should be a real upgrade. Other notable returnees include breakout tailback Venric Mark, safety Ibraheim Campbell, cornerback Nick VanHoose, linebackers Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo, to name a few.
When you survey the roster, the image is clear: Northwestern has all the tools to be just as good, and probably better, than last season. The next angle of this question involves weighing the national landscape, and just where Northwestern falls among other potential nationally ranked teams. I’ll start by setting some obvious parameters. The Wildcats don’t belong in the top five, where the likes of Alabama and Oregon and Stanford are likely to be ranked. They do have a place in the poll, and it’s not at the very bottom. A reasonable projection is somewhere in the 20-23 range. Other teams deserving of similar consideration are Michigan, Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Wisconsin.
That is a conservative projection. Northwestern could very well move up from the bottom five, perhaps into the mid-teens. They finished the season stronger than any Big Ten team, and return every bit as deep and talented as 2012. I’ll get a better read on the Wildcats over spring practice and summer workouts, and per usual, my opinions will be relayed in prompt and detailed fashion. But until then, my projection (21-23) seems fair. As always, feedback is appreciated.
Take Two: by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
As Chris mentioned earlier, this isn't a projection of where Northwestern will be ranked in next year's preseason polls. The Wildcats will be ranked lower than they deserve because, well, Steve Spurrier's view of Northwestern is still basically in line with the national perception of Pat Fitzgerald's squad. That can change this year, especially with a big game on October 5. So since we have no idea what the voters' biases will be, it's tough to predict where Northwestern will land in the preseason polls. However, with the amount of talent returning, NU certainly looks like it deserves to be a top 20 team.
I've been called a hater many times for my analysis on NU football, but in my recent articles about the possibility of a stellar season next year, I've been told to temper my optimism. You can't win in sportswriting. However, there are a lot of reasons for Wildcats fans to be optimistic about next year, despite a tough schedule. The most obvious reason is the return of so many top offensive skill players — Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Trevor Siemian and nearly all the wide receivers. That will be a special group, and possibly the best group of offensive skill players in the Big Ten, up there with Ohio State and Nebraska. The offensive line loses some starters, but the incoming starters will all have experience and the line was a pleasant surprise this year.
But the biggest reason for optimism is the defense. The loss of Brian Arnfelt could potentially be a big one, given the lack of depth at defensive tackle, but NU is stacked at defensive end and Tyler Scott could be one of the top ends in the conference. Linebacker is stacked with Chi Chi Ariguzo, Damien Proby and rising star Drew Smith. The secondary, which has been a weakness at times, returns corner Nick VanHoose and safety Ibraheim Campbell, while corner Daniel Jones has also shown progress and safety Traveon Henry looks ready to take the next step. Then there's Jimmy Hall, who spent most of the year at safety, but played nickelback and outside linebacker in the Gator Bowl and should see time there next fall. Also don't count out top recruits Keith Watkins and Godwin Igwebuike, who could see playing time.
I could keep name-dropping talented players, but the point is clear: this is by far the most complete Northwestern team of the Fitzgerald era and one of the most complete teams in the Big Ten, along with Ohio State. This team is experienced and talented, a rarity at NU. This team can stop the Big Ten's top teams and it can score on them, too. That doesn't necessarily mean the Wildcats will live up to their potential — injuries and letdowns happen — but for the first time in awhile, the potential is very clear in the preseason. All in all, it's tough to calculate exactly where this team's potential ranks with others around the country, but pulling a number out of my head, I'd say this is between the 15th and 20th best team in the nation. A lot can change, but that seems like a fair assessment at this point.