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10 bold Northwestern football predictions: No. 6

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.

No. 6: Northwestern's passing offense will crack the top 5 in the Big Ten this season.

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Before you say anything, I know there are a lot of obstacles to this prediction. The Wildcats run more than other conference teams with tailback Venric Mark and mobile quarterback Kain Colter. Plus, Colter’s arm strength and accuracy have been questionable in past years, affecting the impact that wide receivers can have when he’s on the field. Trevor Siemian’s arm strength is better, but his accuracy isn’t stellar. Last season, NU tied for ninth in the Big Ten in pass offense, averaging only 9.5 yards per catch. Even their best receiver, Christian Jones, averaged only 11.8 yards per catch.

Now here’s why this season will be different.

Despite all of the discouraging numbers from last season, one stands out: the two starting quarterbacks combined for a 63.2 percent completion percentage, and Colter ranked seventh among Big Ten quarterbacks in passing efficiency. From the limited reps I have seen in training camp, his arm strength looks improved. This is not to say he will start hitting 50 yard bombs every other play. However, it is possible that NU will try to incorporate more vertical elements into the offense while Colter is on the field. I would predict that the team’s average per pass will jump two or three yards this season with Colter’s improved passing strength and both quarterbacks’ maintained passing efficiency.

The second component to an improved passing offense is the wide receivers. Even if the Cats’ had had a quarterback with deep throwing ability last season, they had few receivers with enough explosive ability to make the plays. Christian Jones showed flashes of it with a 47 yard catch for a touchdown against Iowa, but that was about it for the deep threat.

Jones returns this season looking even faster and stronger than before, and now he has some players around him that have stepped up their downfield games. Sophomore Cameron Dickerson is poised for a breakout year after only nine receptions last year. He has matched Jones catch-for-catch in practice and could emerge as a second deep threat. Teams will focus on those two, which could allow one more guy to get open downfield: Tony Jones. The junior was the second-leading receiver on the team last year and was able to get open downfield a fair amount. He has the speed to be a quality deep threat if he improves his ball-handling skills. All three guys have deep threat ability and it will be a challenge for opposing teams to cover all of them downfield.

It’s a lofty prediction but Colter’s improved arm and the deep wide receiving corps could make for an exciting year in the passing game.