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. 4: Northwestern will place three players on the All-Big Ten first team.
Like any subjective ranking or list, the science underpinning All-Conference team selection is not exact. Spots are awarded at the discretion of coaches and media members, and often times individual performance is less important than team success or visibility. Getting left off the first team doesn’t necessarily mean one player didn’t play well, just as being included doesn’t mean another is the best at his respective position, or that he’s “better” than the second-team guy at that same position. Smart fans know this. You’re smart, right?
So when I say three Northwestern players will make this year’s All-Big Ten team (Coaches or media), I can’t tether my prediction to statistical success. The formula for selection is vague and often inconsistent, but you should know this: if Northwestern does place three guys on the All-Big Ten first team, that means it probably won a lot of games, and received a lot of regional and national attention for playing in big games.
There are a number of players who could, with a breakout season, make the cut. Running back Venric Mark, cornerback Nick VanHoose, middle linebacker Damien Proby, even tight end (for selection purposes) Dan Vitale are all, in their own unique ways, semi-plausible candidates. I chose three others: kicker Jeff Budzien, safety Ibraheim Campbell and center Brandon Vitabile. Allow me to explain.
Last season, the one player the Wildcats placed on the first team (Coaches) was Budzien. He returns for his senior season with an already well-established reputation for being one of the league’s most accurate kickers. Even if he backslides from the remarkable 0.95 percent make rate he posted last season, Budzien has an excellent chance to make a second consecutive first-team appearance.
Center Brandon Vitabile’s name or tremendous offensive line play doesn’t quite resonate on the casual Big Ten fan level, but people are beginning to notice him. Preseason prediction guru Phil Steele, for one, placed Vitabile on his All-Big Ten first team, and the Edison, N.J. native was the subject of a recent two page photo spread in Sports Illustrated’s college football preview issue. He is no longer a secret.
Then there is Campbell, a humble, soft-spoken, third-year starter who started to garner some national and regional recognition toward the end of last season (and after a standout performance in the Gator Bowl). He was named to Steele’s second team All-Big Ten defense; Ohio State’s Christian Bryant and Michigan State’s Isaiah Lewis were first-teamers.
Of my three selections, Campbell might be the biggest stretch. Part of that has to do with the fact that Northwestern’s secondary, for all its apparent improvements, is still largely perceived as a weak, unreliable, error-prone unit. If the secondary doesn’t improve – and, more importantly, if the crude and wholly uninformative pass yards per-game allowed statistic, the metric still used by a vast majority of selected Big Ten media, doesn’t come down – Campbell has no shot. He will be lumped in with the group’s continuing struggles. If he leads the secondary to a resurgent season, and picks off a few passes along the way (that always helps), Campbell has an great chance of making it. Campbell will be viewed as the guy who “spearheaded the transformation of Northwestern’s secondary,” or something like that.
There are a few other NU players that could make a run at first-team status – I listed a som options above. These guys are simply the ones I believe, given the vaguely unpredictable selection process, have the best chance of being selected.