We’re bringing back a little feature we started up last season, back before Northwestern was considered a real contender in the Legends Division and a consensus preseason top-25 team. Things were different one year ago, but we were still able, with a similar degree of predictive accuracy, to gauge Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Like last year, it’s important to remember the criteria for this ranking aren’t hard or concrete or anything resembling scientific. They are what we make of them, so make sure to read each explanation before disputing a particular choice. And with that, it’s time to kick off 2013’s preseason most important wildcat countdown.
The argument against including Trevor Siemian on this list is that Northwestern could probably survive without him, or at least not collapse to the point where winning some games, staying competitive and challenging for a bowl game wouldn’t be entirely out of reach. The Wildcats wouldn’t be as dynamic on offense, and the playbook would need to be adjusted in several respects, but all in all, lose Siemian and NU’s offense would hum along just fine, right? Things would be different, and maybe a little worse, but would the negative repercussions really be so drastic so as to throw Northwestern’s season into complete disarray? Couldn’t it survive without Siemian, only with a little less offensive flash?
When Kevin and I were putting this list together, that was my initial line of thinking – that losing Siemian would hurt, but Northwestern, provided Kain Colter stayed healthy, would be quite alright with a one-quarterback offense. But then I realized something else: in a hypothetical Siemian-less world, the Wildcats’ offense would be good, but nowhere near as good as two-quarterback system with a full season of repetitions, better chemistry and a more nuanced understanding on coordinator Mick McCall’s behalf of when to rotate between Siemian and Colter. And that’s, uh, important.
The point is, losing Siemian wouldn’t require Northwestern to merely change its playbook; it would require Northwestern eliminate much of the flair and creativity that made this offense one of the better ones in the Big Ten last season.
Without Siemian, Northwestern’s offense would (presumably) feature fewer passing plays, more conventional running plays and an even greater number of option sets. Colter would be under center basically every snap – save for the off chance where, I don’t know, former quarterback Stephen Buckley takes a direct snap in a special package of trick plays. The Wildcats would become a run-first team with a quarterback who, for all his apparent improvements this offseason (and his totally respectable 67.8 completion percentage in 2012), can’t hurl it nearly as effectively as Siemian can. “But Northwestern is already a run-first team!” Well, yeah, sort of, but removing Siemian would effectively destroy any illusion of a dynamic downfield passing game, which is typically a bad thing when you’re trying to introduce at least some level of balance and diversity into an offense.
Not having Siemian would also place a huge burden on a run-first quarterback who routinely eschews sliding in favor of pounding out extra yards to stay healthy over the course of a season. Colter might be able to avoid injury for 12/13 games, but given the increased number of option and designed run plays he’d be expected to take on without Siemian, Colter could well break down sometime in November, or before that.
One counter-argument – and until training camp begins, it’s hard to know whether this is even a semi-viable option – is that true freshman Matt Alviti would burn his redshirt, learn the offense in preseason camp and effectively replace Siemian in the two quarterback system. Alviti is the most highly touted player in the 2013 class, and maybe he’s better equipped than most quarterbacks to handle that responsibility as a true freshman, but I don’t suspect Pat Fitzgerald either wants or plans to use Alviti in his true freshman season.
I presume this will be one of the more controversial inclusions on the list, but guess what? That’s the whole point! Rankings should be debated, players should be vetted on their relative merits and theoretical roster reductions should be used as proxy-barometers of player performance. Siemian could be more or less important than No. 8, and maybe the 2013 season will confirm that point definitely in either direction.
In the preseason, coming off an impressive 2012, eight feels just about right.