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Who Has the Edge? NU vs. Cal

It's Thursday of game week, which means it's time for the return of our weekly feature "who has the edge." We'll go through which team has the edge in each phase of the game leading up to our prediction article each Friday.

When Northwestern has the ball

There won't be many times this season when the Wildcats don't have the edge in this category. All of NU's top offensive weapons are back — Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Trevor Siemian and almost all the receivers — and it certainly has the potential to be just as good as last year. A lot of this game — whether NU scores 20 or 40 — depends on the Cal defensive front. It's a formidable group that is better than it gets credit for, but the Bears have some injuries to work through: linebacker Nick Forbes is doubtful, while the status of defensive end Brennan Scarlett is still up in the air.

Northwestern will always try to establish the run first, especially with this group of personnel, so the key for Cal will be to throw the Wildcats' offense out of rhythm in the early going. If NU can run, that opens things up downfield and gets Cal in a lot of trouble. There will inevitably be a few kinks to work through — particularly on the offensive line — but the Wildcats' offense is just the better unit heading into this game. Things can change, but from what we know now, NU has the edge when it has the ball.

Who has the edge? Northwestern

When Cal has the ball

Northwestern's offense is great, but it's the defense that's the key between a season that ends in Pasadena or Orlando vs. Tempe or Jacksonville (or worse). The Wildcats can score, but can they stop people from scoring? The outside observer will probably call NU's defense a weakness this season, but this unit is far, far better than the NU defenses of the past few years. The Wildcats have more depth at defensive end and linebacker than they've had in a long time. There are five starting spots among those two groups, but NU really has seven starting-caliber players, along with some promising back-ups — that's depth.

The secondary is also much better off. Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry have the potential to form one of the top safety duos in the Big Ten this year — albeit, there aren't a lot of great safeties in the conference — and while the cornerback situation is still up in the air on one side, NU is in much better shape at that position than last year. The biggest question remains at defensive tackle, but Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter (along with a solid rotation of young players) certainly won't be terrible.

The bottom line is NU's defense will get trashed because of the past few seasons, but this is actually a very talented group. They'll be tested early against Cal and the "Bear Raid," but that doesn't necessarily mean they won't be up to the challenge. Cal quarterback Jared Goff will be starting his first ever college football game going against a veteran defense that is bound to get some pressure from its defensive ends. So while Cal may throw the ball a lot, that doesn't mean the Bears will throw it well.

Who knows, maybe Goff will be a star right away. Maybe NU's secondary isn't as improved as it looks. However, NU's defense has more "knowns" than Cal's offense right now. That doesn't mean it will be better in the long run, but it's enough to give the Wildcats an edge in this game.

Who has the edge? Northwestern

Special Teams

Remember 2011? The time when Jeff Budzien only made 60 percent of his field goals and Brandon Williams had punts of 11 and 65 yards in the same game? Well, 2012 was a complete turnaround from that year, and the Wildcats' special teams turned into one of the best in the nation. Budzien and Williams are both back — as is Venric Mark, of course — and while kickoff coverage can change from year to year, the athletes NU has recruited have improved each year, indicating the coverage units should continue to be solid.

Last year, Football Outsiders gave NU a special teams efficiency rating of 2.895, meaning special teams accounted for 2.895 points per game. That was good for fourth in the country. Cal's special teams cost them .273 points per game last season, which ranked 76th in the country. The Bears return Vincenzo D'Amato, who may have potential for the All-Name Team, but was just 16-for-23 on field goals last year and also missed three extra points.

If things stand from last year, NU will have the special teams edge in nearly every game it plays this year. The opener is no exception.

Who has the edge? Northwestern