As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
#23 USC Trojans
#22 Miami Hurricanes
#21 Ole Miss Rebels
#20 Boise State Broncos
#19 Wisconsin Badgers
#18 Oklahoma Sooners
#17 Florida State Seminoles
Coming in at #16….
2012 Record: 10-3
Conference Finish: 3rd in Big Ten Legends Division
Bowl: Won Gator Bowl 34-20 over Mississippi State
2013 Returning Starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Over ranked? The argument could be made I’m giving Northwestern too much credit as the highest rated team in the Legends Division of the Big Ten and quite frankly, history agrees with that assessment. If the last 50 years or so are any indication this prediction and ranking will turn out to be foolish by January but I’ve not hid the fact Pat Fitzgerald is one of my favorite up and coming coaches in the college ranks and the Wildcats’ 10-win season a year ago shows this team can contend. Northwestern is not an offensive juggernaut as the numbers last season show but there’s plenty of talent to work with at all the skill positions and Coach Fitzgerald has fine-tuned the use of two quarterbacks in his system to get results. While the team does not offer much of a passing attack, the pressure Kain Colter puts on the defense every time he’s on the field touching the ball makes him as difficult to prepare for as a traditional drop back stud. Trevor Siemian “led” the Wildcats in passing with 1300 yards and 6 touchdowns and should again factor into the equation.
Venric Mark was an all-conference performer last season after rushing for over 1300 yards and 12 touchdowns and returns for his senior season as the workhorse in the Wildcats offense. With 226 carries in 2012, Mark established himself as the prominent weapon out of the Wildcats backfield and will again likely have a heavy load for a unit that ranked 19th in the nation running the ball last year. In the red zone was where Mark and Colter punished the opposition the most. With one of the top red zone offenses in the country, half of its scores came via the run game, pushing Northwestern to an 88% success rate in that area of the field. Mike Trumpy also returns to give the Wildcats some depth in the backfield and in his senior season we’ll see if his production and work load picks up more weight.
While none of the numbers jump off the page when you look at Northwestern’s production at the receiver position, the Wildcats have a deep group of receivers that bring just about everybody back for 2013. Finding ways to get guys like Christian Jones more touches in an offense that doesn’t use the pass frequently will be a challenge. Add in the third element Kain Colter brings to the table and Northwestern has to feel alright about its outside skill set. The biggest question now is who will throw them the ball? The offensive line takes hits with three starters from a year ago moving on and that will be an enormous key for Northwestern as it looks to establish the run early and often. After all last year’s group gave up one of the lowest sack totals in the country and ranked relatively decent in tackles for loss allowed.
The defense in 2013 had its flaws but perhaps one thing that stood out more than anything else and realistically was the difference between a third place finish and division crown was finishing games. Northwestern did not know how to close out games when it had the chance. An inexcusable deep ball against Michigan set up the game-tying field goal (a game Michigan would win in overtime) and the Wildcats would blow a 12 point lead against Nebraska as well that resulted in two crushing division losses. It’s impossible to say the results on the year would have stayed identical if one or both of those games had different outcomes but looking at the Legends Division and how it shaped up in 2012, Northwestern was on the cusp of a division title, an element perhaps lost in a third place finish.
The front seven has some personnel losses and as a whole Northwestern loses three of its top eight tacklers from last season. With that said Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby are back at the linebacker spot as two of the team’s top three tacklers from last year and will give Coach Fitzgerald talented veteran experience in his linebackers corps which has always been his bread and butter. The Wildcats forced turnovers at a relatively strong clip last year and did fairly well in the red zone but still could be better. If there’s one area the front seven has to be better in 2013 it is generating pressure on the quarterback. Last season the Wildcats were fairly modest when it came to sacks and tackles for loss and while not entirely the reason, contributed to some extent to the secondaries woes.
The secondary was the obvious weak point a year ago and now must replace a couple of key players from last year’s unit. As the 80th ranked pass defense, we talked already about its flops down the stretch in a couple of big games, the secondary proved to be the defensive downfall of this team. Nick Van Hoose and Ibraheim Campbell are a couple pieces coming back that will look to lead the newer players to start out the season. Expect teams to test Northwestern early in the year to see if this ship has plugged its hole.
Northwestern is a refreshing example of a team who was willing to go out and schedule competitive non-conference games, and then it turned out they may wind up being easy wins. California hosts Northwestern in the opener and it will be interesting to see how Sonny Dykes debut at home goes. After that Syracuse comes to town in a return game for the thriller in the Carrier Dome that Northwestern pulled out late. The Big Ten schedule does Northwestern very few favors and makes both getting a fast start and finishing strong equally difficult tasks. Ohio State kicks off conference play in what has the potential to be a championship game preview if Northwestern does live up to the hype and Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes will represent an overwhelming Big Ten favorite. After that it’s immediately back to the grind against a Wisconsin team who will be overlooked coming into the year because of the prior mentioned Buckeyes. That’s almost as tough a two game start as a team can ask for in the Big Ten.
Then November features three straight games against Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska though both Michigan games are at home. Still getting the three top competitors in the division without so much as a bye week tossed in somewhere to break it up will define what this team’s season will come down to. I’m much lower on the three teams (not ranking any of them, SPOILER!), than most people and think the Legends Division is very winnable for Northwestern. One thing is for sure, nothing will be handed to them this year. The Wildcats will have to go out and take that title away.
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