One preseason preview magazine deserves your attention each and every season. That preview was released yesterday to its typical share of media reaction. Phil Steele’s preseason predictions are famous for, um, being famous, I guess? His All-Conference teams and other projections are built up as some authoritative index of predictive strength, as if to rise above the hit-or-miss guesswork you see from most publications around this time of year. Preseason projections are intrinsically fraught with error, and the sheer fact that Steele’s rankings are taken more seriously than any other publication’s is no doubt impressive.
I’ve never enjoyed mapping out a season on a macro-team level, and individual player predictions are even more perilous not only to produce and leave vulnerable to countless email recriminations and message board scorn, but actually see those predictions realized with some level of accuracy over the course of a season. Steele trudges on, year after year, and it’s always fun to dissect and lash out about various inclusions and omissions. Because how could he miss your team’s juco transfer sophomore linebacker who’s so obviously destined for a break out season? That redshirt freshman running back that added 30 pounds of muscle in the offseason and ran everybody over in spring practice? These are the kinds of arguments Steele’s rankings generate. They may not be accurate to a T – find me a preseason rankings system that is; you wont, but hey, do your best – but they’re fun debate points, and they’re worth discussing, if only to get you thinking ahead to the coming season and which individuals are being recognized as among their conference’s best at their respective positions.
Of particular interest to Northwestern fans are his preseason Big Ten teams, of which there are four separate offensive, defensive and special teams units, and the Wildcats are well-represented. I’ve picked out some of the more interesting Wildcats-related notes from Steele’s picks, and will explain, in tidy bullet-point form, what most caught my eye about college football’s *gold standard* for preseason projections.
- In Steele’s 2012 preseason Big Ten selections, no Northwestern player made the first team, four (WR Demetrius Fields, OG Brian Mulroe, S Ibraheim Campbell and KR/PR Venrick Mark) made second team and just one made the third (OT Patrick Ward) and fourth teams (C Brandon Vitabile). Expectations for Northwestern entering last season did not foresee the Wildcats winning 10 games and challenging for a division title, and not even Steele’s vaunted system could have imagined some of Northwestern’s individual stars breaking out the way they did. Steele is making sure he doesn’t overlook the Wildcats in 2013: four Wildcats made this year’s first team (C Vitabile, RB/KR Mark, DE Tyler Scott, K Jeff Budzien) and one (Campbell) made second team. The third and fourth teams each featured two NU representatives, with OLB Chi Chi Ariguzo and CB Nick Vanhoose making the third and QB Kain Colter and LB Damien Proby sneaking onto the fourth.
- The most predictable of Northwestern’s selections is Mark. Steele actually gave him two separate roster spots, one for running back and one for kick/punt returning, and Mark’s first-team recognition in both respects is well-founded. He was Northwestern’s most consistent offensive performer for most of last season, contributing from the backfield and in the kicking game week after week, finally transcending his boxed-in special teams duties and unleashing his explosiveness and quickness into the offense. If he can replicate, or even come close to the numbers he put up last season – 1,533 rushing yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 13 touchdowns; 15 punt returns, 18.7 yds/return, two touchdowns – his first team status will be a definitive confirmation of what everyone, including Steele, has come to know about Mark. He is a dangerous and explosive backfield threat with big play potential, and an instinctive open-field runner with tremendous spatial awareness and cutting ability on run backs. Wrap it together, add in an offseason of refined option work with Colter (and for his sake, a greater understanding of how to conserve and protect his smallish frame) and Mark should be able to back up Steele’s projection and leave no room for debate.
- The reasons behind Vitabile’s jump from fourth to first team aren’t completely clear; Vitabile has been one of the better and more consistent centers in the Big Ten for the past couple years. You sort of have to think – on top of turnover and upper-class status and greater national exposure matter, sure – Steele felt comfortable making this move more because Northwestern won 10 games last season, and less as a result of an actual careful analysis of Vitabile’s skills and gametape. Vitabile is legitimately good – even an untrained eye with scant knowledge of an offensive lineman’s typical tasks and responsibilities could have reached the same conclusion by watching any of his games last season. His rock-like performance merits this promotion now, and were it not for a particularly strong crop of centers in front of him last season, including Graham Pocic at Illinois, James Ferentz at Iowa and Travis Frederick at Wisconsin, Vitabile might have likewise ranked higher in last season’s preseason projections.
- Just one of Northwestern’s 2012 selections came on the defensive side of the ball. This season, the Wildcats had five defenders make the cut. Last year's second team rep., Campbell, might be NU's most indispensable player, period, and looked spry and active and more comfortable than ever in spring practice next to emerging safety partner Traveon Henry. Ariguzo and VanHoose both return after strong seasons, and should make forward strides, leadership and production-wise, in 2013. Proby has been one of Northwestern’s more underappreciated defenders the past two seasons. After leading Northwestern with 112 tackles and being named an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer in 2012, Steele had no choice but to include him in this year’s preseason guide. Scott took a major leap last season and finished second in the Big Ten in sacks (9.0). He may not reach that mark again this season – expect plenty of chip blocks and getaway roll outs to minimize Scott’s destructiveness off the edge – but Scott’s influence, even if he doesn’t rack up huge sack numbers, is enough to earn him an appropriate first-team selection
- I didn’t go into this expecting either of Northwestern’s quarterbacks to earn Steele’s unpredictable nod of first-through-fourth team recognition. The Wildcats are one of the few teams with the balance and play-calling acumen to make a two-quarterback system work, and I figured Steele would use that simple fact to demerit Colter and Siemian’s candidacies. If either QB had a chance to sneak onto the list, it was Colter, and lo and behold, the dual-threat signal caller made the fourth-team list. A cleaner and more synchronized option execution, with the potential for improved short and middle-range passing accuracy, could allow Colter to blossom in his final year on campus. If coordinator Mick McCall employs his talents wisely, and Colter stays healthy over the course of the entire season, I fully expect him to eclipse last season’s passing (872) and rushing (894) totals.
- Last but definitely not least is Budzien, who not only connected on 19 of 20 field goals last season and nailed every one of his 50 PAT attempts, but finished the year in the discussion for the best kicker in the country. Perhaps that just-missed 53-yarder in the final minutes at home against Nebraska, which could well have springboarded NU to a Legends Division title and given Budzien a perfect miss-make record on the year, would have settled the debate. He has the opportunity to garner more national (postseason) rankings love in his final year, and Steele obviously and rightfully believes he’s capable of turning in another stellar season.