Northwestern football's 2015 season finally begins this weekend against Stanford at Ryan Field. After a fairly eventful offseason for the Wildcats — in which redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson was named the starting quarterback, among other happenings — it's time for Pat Fitzgerald's team to prove itself on the field in actual games.
Inside NU staff season predictions
All our predictions fit into a pretty tight range despite the uncertainty surrounding the Wildcats this year.
The team's first opponent, Stanford, presents some challenges for Northwestern, though. The Cardinal, led by David Shaw, has made a BCS bowl three out of the last four seasons, with the lone exception coming last year as Stanford settled for a Foster Farms Bowl victory over Maryland.
Now, Stanford probably isn't going to find its way back to the Rose Bowl or Fiesta Bowl this winter, but Shaw's team still should have a solid season, and could be flying a bit under the radar nationally. So what is there to know about the team that Northwestern opens against? Here are three major points:
1. Kevin Hogan is back at quarterback, and he's pretty good
When anyone thinks of Stanford quarterbacks, they mostly think of a certain current Indianapolis Colt (that would be Andrew Luck) or a former Denver Bronco (John Elway). Returning senior Kevin Hogan, who has been the Stanford starter for the last two seasons, is not as good as Luck or Elway, but he's a dependable, mistake-free signal-caller who has posted a passer rating of over 145 throughout his career.
In his time as a season-long starter, Hogan has thrown for a combined 39 touchdowns and just 18 interceptions. He hasn't shown an ability to light defenses up, but he has managed games well. This year, even with top receiver Ty Montgomery gone to the NFL, a little more will be expected. Stanford hopes Hogan, a great decision-maker, can take the next step.
As for his weapons, our Kevin Dukovic reports that top wide receiver Devon Cajuste is questionable for the game with an ankle injury (full Stanford report coming Tuesday). But Hogan still has highly-touted tight end Austin Hooper and running back/returner Christian McCaffrey, so he's still surrounded by plenty of options.
2. Be careful of running back Barry Sanders (not that one)
Pedigree, in terms of a football player being a part of a family rife with other successful football players, is a major factor looked at when analyzing a player. When your dad is Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Barry Sanders, like Stanford's possible running back starter Barry Sanders Jr. is, it can be both a crutch and a major positive.
While the younger Sanders isn't as explosive or dominant as his dad, he still has major play-making ability. He ran the ball just 64 times last season and should see an increase in touches this season.
McCaffrey — another son of a former NFL star, wide receiver Ed McCaffrey — is the one to watch though. He's only a sophomore but should start at running back thanks to his versatility and knack for making big plays. He was named to both the preseason Maxwell and Hornung Award watch lists as a running back and a few other lists as a punt returner, so he can do it all on the field.
He ran for 300 yards on 42 carries in his freshman campaign and also caught 17 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns as he switched between halfback and slot receiver. His role in the offense is relatively unknown for the upcoming season, though, but he may find himself as the starting running back, over Sanders and fifth-year Remound Wright, should that be the direction the coaching staff takes.
3. The defense only has four returning starters from last season
In addition to having two offensive players drafted in the 2015 NFL Draft, Stanford saw four impact defensive players get selected, capping off a solid senior class which has left the Cardinal with just four returning starters on defense. In total, nine players with starting experience have departed.
With guys like strong safety Jordan Richards (second-round pick), defensive end Henry Anderson and cornerback Alex Carter (both third-round picks) gone, Stanford will have to rely on a bunch of inexperienced underclassmen to try to fill the gaps well. One player David Shaw won't have to worry about, though, is senior linebacker Blake Martinez, who led the team with 102 tackles last year; Martinez also had three interceptions.
Martinez is a bonafide stud, and should be Northwestern's offense's number-one priority in terms of blocking and neutralizing. However, after him, Stanford's unit gets a little shaky. There is talent, but the majority of it is unproven.