It's five days away from the start of Northwestern Wildcats football season, and AHHHHHHHHHH WE ARE SO PUMPED.
Let's say you haven't been thinking about Northwestern football for the past nine months. Let's say you haven't been thinking about Northwestern football, well, ever -- thanks to recent success, it seems like more people are claiming Northwestern fandom than ever.
Well, we don't judge. After all, Northwestern is undergoing something unique. The events of the last year or so have led to Northwestern heading into a year with high expectations -- and, oddly enough, people around college football acknowledging those expectations and validating them by saying they expect Northwestern to do well.
We're damn pumped, every last one of us, to experience something that Northwestern football hasn't often given us a chance to experience. I figured I'd take a little while for whoever -- whether they be a new fan, casual fan who hasn't been paying attention since the Gator Bowl, a fan of an opposing team, or a new reader -- to catch up on the Wildcats: why they're good, how good they are, who thinks they'll be good, what's happened in the past year or so, and how they can follow along here at Sippin' on Purple. And even if you're not one of those things, hopefully you'll enjoy reading along.
So wait, Northwestern? Good?
Wait, how long have you not been paying attention to Northwestern football for? But yes, Northwestern good.
Who says that besides your biased face?
Everybody! Almost every human being on the planet whose job it is to rank football teams thinks Northwestern should be ranked somewhere among the top 25 teams in the country, which is the general borderline for what a good team is.
Let's see: the AP Poll has Northwestern ranked at No. 22, the USA Today poll ranked Northwestern at 22, Sports Illustrated ranked Northwestern at No. 22, Paul Myerberg of USA Today also ranked Northwestern at 22, and... and... well....
It's the first time Northwestern has been ranked in these preseason since 2001, so it's not like this happens awesome.
Woah, they sound good. Who are their good players?
I'd love to tell you! But say, would you mind if I linked you through to the profiles I've written on every player on Northwestern's team over the course of the last three months?
Venric Mark, 2012 FWAA/CBS/Sporting News All-American returner, 2013 preseason first-team all-Big Ten running back, Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker, Hornung Watch Lists
(Sorry, chap -- I haven't gotten up to Venric on my countdown, so this link actually goes to something I wrote about how Venric is the best punt returner in the country.)
Lightning in the tiniest bottle, Mark is Northwestern's best running back since Tyrell Sutton, and perhaps the best in the Big Ten this year.
As a freshman and a sophomore, Mark was a special teams ace, but Northwestern couldn't really find a role for him on offense. He wasn't much of a wide receiver, but at 5'8, 175, there was no way he could be a Big Ten running back meant for three-yards-and-cloud-of-dusting and getting hit by big ol' linebackers, right?
Wrong. With a dearth of talent at RB, NU swapped Mark in there last year, and it worked like gangbusters -- 1,366 yards, 12 touchdowns, 8 100-yard games. Dude's shifty enough to dodge tacklers, speedy enough to accelerate past most of y'all jive-turkeys, and actually surprised by being able to survive a season's worth of whatever hits people did put on him. This while being, like I said, arguably the best punt returner in college football, thanks to his ability to swap directions on dimes.
One of the Big Ten's most threatening pass-rushers, out of nowhere. Not a vicious hitter, but capable of bullrushing past damn near any tackle in the conference.
Scott was overlooked in high school, with offers from only Northwestern and some MAC schools. But he worked out and worked out and worked out, and grew to 265 pounds. In his first year as a starter, his strength showed, ending the year with 9.0 sacks -- second in the conference and the most of anybody coming back. Now that the opposition knows Scott, he might draw some double-teams, but Northwestern's got a slew of talented defensive ends on the other side that will make opponents pay for keying in on Scott.
(Sorry we also still haven't gotten to Kain -- enjoy this post about the metric differences between him and Northwestern's other QB, Trevor Siemian!)
Whether he slings it or keeps it, there aren't many weapons in college football like Kain Colter.
Colter's a flat-out amazing athlete. A decent arm, incredibly quick, and the hands to fill in at wide receiver -- not to mention the intelligence to seamlessly swap between multiple positions on offense. For Northwestern, though, he's a quarterback -- well, sometimes a wide receiver, but let's ignore that for now -- since he makes NU's option game with Mark truly dynamic, and has the ability to spread the ball sideline-to-sideline with his arm, which is really all you need to steadily move the ball downfield. For deep passes and two-minute drills, NU has Trevor Siemian, but QB 1A is Colter, because he brings such an insane variety of skills defenses have to account for.
He might not be Northwestern's only QB, but you can bet on Kain Colter to win the Heisman.
There's upheaval on Northwestern's line, but Vitabile is the rock.
Three guys graduated from Northwestern's offensive line last year, and a fourth player switches from right tackle to left tackle. But Vitabile -- a starter from the time he was a freshman -- remains consistent. There might be highly touted talent moving in on either side of him, but it's inexperienced. The Wildcats need a rock to make the right calls and lead an offensive line responsible for keeping defenders from getting to Northwestern's important runners before they can make moves.
Northwestern's secondary has been a big ol' joke for a while. Campbell has gone a long way towards shoring that up and making sure bad things don't happen, the primary reason you aren't generallyseeing dudes just chuck the ball to open players downfield against Northwestern anymore. He's got the athleticism to cover the whole field and, as a junior, is the most experienced player in the Wildcats' defensive backfield.
Jeff Budzien, 2012 first-team all-Big Ten kicker, 2013 preseason first-team all-Big Ten kicker, Lou Groza watch list
JEFF BUDZIEN IS NOT A MERE MAN. HE IS A HERO, A DEMIGOD. THE TRUTH. THE LIGHT. HE WILL WIN THE LOU GROZA AWARD OR THE STREETS WILL RUN RED WITH THE BLOOD OF FOOLISH WATCH LIST VOTERS.
Chi Chi Ariguzo, preseason third-team all-Big Ten linebacker, Damien Proby, preseason fourth-team all-Big Ten linebacker
Northwestern's linebackers in 2012 were the best the team had since Pat Fitzgerald was a player, not a coach. The unit lost one player, David Nwabuisi, but each of these guy stepped up huge. Ariguzo is a ballhawk, who somehow always knew how to find himself in position to make a play, and now switches to the weakside, and Proby is an extremely solid middle linebacker, making sure opposing teams don't get much on the ground.
There is one side of the field you should definitely not pass to if you are an opposing quarterback. It is VanHoose's side. A redshirt freshman last year, he proved to be a better cover corner than his inexperience would indicate, and opponents stopped testing him as the year went along -- in part because Northwestern didn't really have a second cornerback.
That's just a few good dudes!
How did this all happen?
Long story short: Pat Fitzgerald made everybody excited about everything as a player, then became a coach and made everybody excited about everything again He watched his team get consistently better and in turn land better recruits, but somehow the team never won a bowl game.
Last year, Northwestern won ten games and the Gator Bowl. In terms of total wins, this was tied for the most successful season in school history. In terms of winning a bowl game, well, Northwestern had only done that once, in 1949. Although NU finished third in the Big Ten Legends division, their three losses were a) a game they led by double digits in the fourth quarter and lost by double digits b) A game they lost because they gave up a Hail Mary late, then lost in overtime c) A game they lost by allowing two touchdowns in the last six minutes which they could have won had a field goal been five feet to the left. Suffice it to say, they were in the mix for a Big Ten Championship Game bid, and when you get one of those, it means you are good at football.
But that was last year!
Ahhh! But last year -------> this year! You see, 2012 was not the culmination of a long build-up leading up to a great season. In fact, many Northwestern fans would have told you last year was going to be a bad year, considering NU's star quarterback was leaving and so were his two favorite targets. I personally projected six wins, if I remember correctly.
Last year Northwestern was supposed to rebuild around some youngsters. But it turned out those youngsters were ready to go.
The Wildcats return seven of 11 offensive starters. The one skill player amongst those was wide receiver Demetrius Fields, who was fourth in receiving yardage and third in receptions on a team that didn't pass much. The three offensive linemen are big losses, but Northwestern's offensive line depth is, per recruiting ratings and reports from practice, the best in program history.
They also return seven of 11 defensive starters. Two of the players that graduate were contributors in a secondary that, quite frankly, wasn't very impressive. Also gone are linebacker David Nwabuisi, who also leaves at a position where there are supposedly talented people ready to fill in, and defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, and admittedly the jury is still out on whether he can be replaced sufficiently.
But suffice it to say, most of Northwestern's skill players -- the ones who made them good last year -- are still around.
So who is Northwestern going to play this year, and where and when?
Hmm, well, you see, that's kind of the thing. Northwestern has a really strong schedule -- the only team in the Legends Division that has to play the two best teams in the Leaders Division.
Here's NU's schedule, with links to Bill Connelly's previews of every team and the opposing blog, if SBN's network has one.
|8/31||@ Cal||California Golden Blogs|
|9/7||vs. Syracuse||Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician|
|9/14||@ Western Michigan||Hustle Belt|
|10/5||vs. Ohio State||Land-Grant Holy Land|
|10/12||vs. Wisconsin||Bucky's 5th Quarter|
|10/19||vs. Minnesota||The Daily Gopher|
|10/26||@. Iowa||Black Heart Gold Pants|
|11/2||@ Nebraska||Corn Nation|
|11/16||vs. Michigan||Maize N Brew|
|11/23||vs. Michigan State||The Only Colors|
|11/30||@ Illinois||The Champaign Room|
Is Northwestern expected to win those games?
Umm... kinda. Opening lines had Northwestern favored in seven of nine games by opening lines, with double-digit advantages in five of them. Some of those have dropped as bettors refuse to believe that Northwestern can be good.
Okay, but what are the big games?
People generally expect Northwestern to win its non-con games -- obviously, they'll be tough, but they're against three teams with new coaches and an FCS team -- and last year, the Wildcats won all their games against "teams they should beat," even in Big Ten play.
So, the biggies:
Oct. 5, vs. Ohio State
At home, under the lights. Unghhhhh. NU hasn't played Ohio State since 2008, and the Buckeyes are expected to win the Big Ten conference after going 12-0 last year. Both teams could be undefeated, and this one could be a Gameday game.
Nov. 2, @ Nebraska
We're 1-1 against the Huskers since they entered the conference, and last year's game was a one-point heartbreaker. NU wants revenge, and this one will be huge in the race to win the Legends Division.
Nov. 16, vs. Michigan
yeah yeah this one came down to a Hail Mary last year, but more importantly, last year, this game came down to a hail mary, and basically i want to punch them in the face.
The games against Wisconsin and Michigan State will also be dicey, obvi.
You know what? I knew a lot of that stuff already. Totally. Just bluffin'!
It turns out I'm just coming back to Northwestern football after a 9-month hiatus. Why don't you just fill me in on what's happened since then?
Ugh, you're a jerk.
- Jan. 1: Northwestern wins the Gator Bowl. HA-HAAAAA
- Jan. 8: NU ends the year ranked either 17 or 16, depending on whether you like coaches or media.
- Feb. 6: Northwestern adds 19 freshmen on Signing Day the No. 8 or No. 9 class in the B1G. It includes 4-star QB Matt Alviti.
- Feb 16. Northwestern does the Harlem Shake? Was that actually this century?
- April 17: Northwestern plays a spring football scrimmage, which isn't very interesting.
- March-June: Northwestern goes on a recruiting run the likes of which have never been seen in Evanston. First is dual-threat four-star QB Clayton Thorson, then in rapid succession three-star running back Auston Anderson (wanted by Texas, his homestate school), four-star athlete Dareian Watkins, and four-star running back Justin Jackson. With over 10 recruits by the end of June, Northwestern vaults into the top 25 of most recruiting services.
April 29: Despite winning 10 games the season before, no Northwestern senior are picked in the 2013 NFL Draft. A few find NFL teams, though.
- May 24: Northwestern DIDN'T win the women's lacrosse national championship, which is weird.
- June 3: Nine Northwestern players are announced to Phil Steele's all-B1G teams, but we already talked about them.
- June 26: Vegas sets Northwestern's line at 9.5 wins, with the implication they'll win more.
- July 23: Northwestern linebacker Eric Wilson transfers, but it isn't considered an enormous loss.
- Aug. 18: Northwestern decides it needs a tarp.
And now you're caught up!
This is great, but I really wish you'd get me super-hyped in three videos.
Oh, psh, that's easy.
By the way, this is embarrassing, but... well, I'm kinda new around here.
That's not embarrassing! We're always looking for new people to talk to about Northwestern sports, since there are only eight Northwestern sports fans on the planet. If you've never commented here before, you're free to say whatever you want in the comments -- provided you're not racist, basically -- even if it's super dumb and only tangentially related to what we're talking about. You're going to want to stop by on Saturdays, when we have game threads where we collectively lose our nonsense about college football. We'd love to have you, y'all!
I have a Facebook and a Twitter. Is that okay?
We'll tolerate it.
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More from Sippin' On Purple:
- Northwestern football: Wildcats open season vs. Cal
- Northwestern depth chart: Collin Ellis, Chance Carter starters vs. Cal
- MONDAY OF GAME WEEK SIPS, ft. Northwestern's captains and an update from me
- Tony Jones, Northwestern Wildcats football, No. 6
- Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern Wildcats football, No. 7
- 'Only at Northwestern:' An Excerpt from John U. Bacon's 'Fourth and Long'