Northwestern was a trendy pick for the Big Ten Legends title in 2013 as they opened their conference schedule at home again Ohio State and a road game at Wisconsin. The Ohio State game was billed as the biggest game in the history of the football program as both teams came in ranked in the top 20 and ESPN’s College Gameday was in town. The Wildcats hung with the #4 ranked Buckeyes but 20 4th quarter points by the Buckeyes proved to be too much for the boys in purple. It was all downhill after that as the Wildcats lost 7 games in a row, starting quarterback Kain Colter went down with an injury, dual threat running back/quarterback/wide receiver Venric Mark battled nagging injuries and Northwestern lost 7 straight games before winning their final game of the season 37-34 over in-state rival Illinois. The Wildcats return 17 starters from that team not including senior quarterback Trevor Siemian who threw for 2,149 yards and 11 touchdowns in relief. The Wildcats return all five starting offensive linemen, a healthy Venric Mark, who is as dynamic a playmaker as I have seen since Percy Harvin, and 12 of their top 14 tacklers from a year ago, seven of which are seniors. For those of you counting at home that is 14 seniors in the starting lineup and I guarantee that Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald has those seniors coached up.
Also, if you haven’t noticed the Big Ten finally did away with the terrible division names Leaders & Legends, shifted some teams around and renamed their division to the much easier East & West. Northwestern benefits a bit as the West traded Michigan for Illinois and Northwestern managed to dodge Ohio State and Michigan State from the Eastern division. The Wildcats open against two rebuilding programs in California and Northern Illinois but finish the month of September on the road in Happy Valley against the resurgent Penn State Nittany Lions. Home games in October against Wisconsin and Nebraska will be tricky and the Wildcats get a bye week before a November 1st date at Kinnick Stadium against a very good Iowa team. The toughest stretch of the season for Northwestern will be the first three games in November: on the road at Iowa, Michigan at home and on the road at Notre Dame. If the Wildcats can steal a game from either Wisconsin or Iowa, I think Northwestern can be in the hunt for their first Big Ten Championship since 2000.
For the record, I was one of the people making Northwestern my dark horse pick for the Big Ten title in 2013 but the Wildcats were bit hard by the injury bug and hard times as they gave up a game-tying or go-ahead touchdown with 5 or less minutes or in overtime EIGHT times in 2013. This senior laden team will not forget how all those games ended and will want to go out as winners in 2014. My only question is whether the Northwestern players spent more time working toward the 2014 season in the offseason or if they spent more time on their efforts to unionize college athletes, which is a very noble cause. On the field however, if quarterback Siemian continues to improve, the rest of the offense stays healthy and that defense improves from 27.1 points per game and 424 yards per game the Wildcats can be a legitimate contender for the Big Ten West division title.
Stay logged on to Sowegalive.com for Team #23 on Wednesday and tune in to the Southern Football Report every Saturday from 10am-Noon starting on August 23rd! Here is a hint for Team #23: This team was a member of the Big West Conference before joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2001.
#25 – Michigan Wolverines
#24 – Northwestern Wildcats
#23 – ?????????????