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10 bold Northwestern football predictions: No. 10

The wait is nearly over. At long last, after eight trying months, the 2013 college football season is upon us. In just 10 days, Northwestern will meet Cal in its primetime season opener. This last week and change can be excruciatingly slow, so to ease your anxiety, we’re rolling out 10 bold predictions, one each day, to lead you into August 31. Some of these may sound crazy (some of them won’t), and we probably won’t be looking back four months from now celebrating our foresight, but preseason sports predictions aren’t meant to be perfect, anyway, and erring on the bold side is much more fun than playing it safe. With that said, let’s begin: the real stuff, the actual football, will be here in no time.

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No. 10: Kain Colter will account for 35 touchdowns this season.

Quick, before you pull up Colter’s stats from last year: does that sound like a big number? For some context, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel registered 47 total touchdowns in 2012, in what many billed one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history. Colter, meanwhile, finished with 20 scores – 12 rushing and eight throwing. Predicting he can pile up 15 more isn’t crazy at all; it’s downright reasonable. To make it happen, a few things need to occur.

First, Colter needs to get more passing opportunities in the red zone. Of his 150 attempts last season, only 15 came between the opponent’s 20-yard line and the end zone. Colter completed 66.7 percent of those attempts (including four touchdowns), down roughly one percent from his season mark. Allowing the dual-threat QB to sling it near the end zone more often, provided he can keep his completion percentage around where it was last season, would bump up his passing touchdowns.

On the ground, Colter would need to cut back on the number of times he pitches the ball to Venric Mark on option plays. The decision to pitch or “keep” in the option isn’t a preferential, arbitrary thing; Colter reads the defense and makes a choice based on what he sees in front of him. There’s no guarantee – even in a self-serving hypothetical world where Colter is more concerned with racking up touchdowns than the betterment of the team – keeping the ball more often would significantly increase his rushing TDs.

More to that point, coordinator Mick McCall isn’t going to design plays specifically to put Colter in better positions to score touchdowns. His job, like all good offensive coordinators, is to put the entire offense in position to score touchdowns – whether Colter, Mark, Christian Jones, Dan Vitale or anyone else.

It then becomes a question of whether Colter can pick up 15 more touchdowns within the natural flow of McCall’s offense. A lot of this will depend on how much playing time is granted to 1A quarterback Trevor Siemian, and, more specifically, how many snaps he’s allotted near the red zone. Northwestern is not what anyone would consider a “deep-strike” offense; Wildcats receivers averaged 9.9 yards per catch last year, one of the lower marks in the country (per SB Nation Stats guru Bill Connelly), and both Colter and Siemian completed fewer than 28 percent of passes 16 yards or longer, according to SippinonPurple’s NUGap. The Wildcats, in other words, aren’t going to manufacture a deep passing game out of whole cloth, and Colter won’t suddenly morph into a deadly accurate triggerman on 50 and 60-yard scoring plays.

His rise in touchdowns production, if it even happens in the first place, will need to come from short throws and option keepers (or other designed runs) in the red zone. There’s little doubt Colter can reach 35 touchdowns, but if he does, it will be because the offense – not just Colter – is a high-scoring unit in the aggregate, with TD numbers increasing across the board in the confines of a more collectively productive system.

The Wildcats return most of their major contributors on offense, and if the new starters along the offensive line can step up, NU could well eclipse the 31.7 points per game mark it notched last season. Colter would naturally consume part of that increase. Reaching 35 touchdowns is not unfathomable.