We’ve reached the end of our Most Important Player rankings and surely you knew, perhaps even before No. 10 was released, that Siemian would claim the top spot. If you had other ideas, other players you think are more important to Northwestern’s success this season, they are probably one of the following.
1) Venric Mark because he had an excellent 2012 season, in which NU on 10 games, and if he even comes close to replicating the numbers he put up that year, the Wildcats can push for a division title.
2) Paul Jorgensen because NU’s offensive line was in shambles after losing key veterans from 2012 and if it can’t come together this season, Siemian will take a beating in the pocket and probably get injured.
3) Ibraheim Campbell because he seemed to make a lot of big plays last season and the pass defense really needs him.
4) Etither Chance Carter or Sean McEvily because lose one of those guys, and NU’s run defense risks turning into something like Notre Dame vs. Eddie Lacy and Alabama in the 2013 national title game.
It would not be difficult to make a case that for any of those guys. Players were ordered based on the same murky criteria Associated Press and Coaches Poll voters use to rank teams (come to think of it, there are no criteria for those rankings!) That affords a lot of leeway when deciding who belongs ahead of who, but if we did have a formula that crunched numbers and spit out a catch-all, PER-like statistic – let’s call it MIP -- Siemian’s would be the largest.
The biggest reason for that is his position. At quarterback, Siemian wields more influence over the offense than any of his teammates. If he has a bad game, chances are NU isn’t going to score a lot of points, even if the running backs can offset some of the damage by keeping the ball moving on the ground. That’s pretty simple, and it applies to most offenses. What would cause Siemian to be ranked, say, No. 2 or No. 3 is a strong backup quarterback, and at this point in the offseason, I can’t confidently say NU has one.
A subset of shouty fans pushed for NU to bench Siemian last season, and those same fans went into spring practice thinking he was legitimately locked in a two-way battle with redshirt freshman Matt Alviti. It was clear from the first session that wasn’t the case. Siemian was ahead of Alviti, and Zack Oliver, by a pretty significant margin, and nothing that happened in subsequent workouts changed that. I’d contend Siemian strengthened his hold on the starting job. That neither Alviti nor Oliver even presented the appearance of a challenge – that NU’s quarterback situation couldn’t be termed a “battle” in anything other than a purely technical sense; as in, NU has more than one QB on its roster – underscores how vital Siemian is to this team.
“He’s the best player at the most important position” is too basic an explanation, though. So let’s review the last time Siemian was on the field. With Kain Colter out because of an injury, Siemian completed 31-of-44 passes for 414 yards against an (admittedly) bad Illinois pass defense. In a post-game news conference, coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Illinois game was the healthiest Siemian had been since NU’s loss to Wisconsin on October 12. In between, he had rough outings against Minnesota, Nebraska (only 13 attempts) and Michigan State, in which he failed to record a quarterback rating above 100.
If we assume Siemian will be healthy to start the season, it’s not unreasonable to expect his performance to more closely align with what he did in the Illinois win than the ugly losses that came before it, with the caveat that pass defenses more formidable than the Illini's will ensure he's not throwing for 400 yards every time out. If he were to get injured again, forcing Oliver or Alviti into the starting spot, NU’s offense would probably drop off quite a bit. It would, at the very least, become more basic – with coordinator Mick McCall’s passing playbook simplified.
Which, again, speaks to why Siemian is so important. Wipe him off the roster, and you’re left with a strong-armed but hardly polished back up in Oliver and a highly touted but totally unproven redshirt freshman in Alviti. Neither of those options should make NU fans particularly comfortable. Not until one of them proves the gap between him and Siemian has narrowed. NU better hope, in other words, that Siemian doesn't just stay on the field but also stays healthy.
As obvious and DUH as that sounds, it’s...true. NU needs Siemian at his best this season.