With Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern each deserving of consideration for the No. 1 spot, the Big Ten Legends Division should be one of the most competitive conference title races in college football.
Nebraska won the Legends Division with a 7-1 mark last season, while Northwestern finished two games back at 5-3. Although the Wildcats were just over .500 in conference play, they were just a few plays away from going 8-0. Northwestern lost by 11 to Penn State, by seven to Michigan and by one point to Nebraska.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team returns 15 starters for 2013, including quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. The defense showed improvement last season and ranked 29th nationally in points allowed.
With a challenging schedule ahead, can Northwestern beat last year’s five wins in conference play?
The 2013 college football season is still over 100 days away, but it’s never too early to start talking predictions and expectations for each team going into 2013.
Athlon Sports’ college football top 25 countdown for 2013 is officially underway. Northwestern checks in as the No. 24 team for 2013.
How Many Big Ten Games Will Northwestern Win in 2013?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I’d be surprised if Northwestern finishes with a losing Big Ten record. I see four conference wins on the schedule (Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan State and Illinois), but that’s due to my pessimism about Iowa and Michigan State as much as anything else. The Wildcats look pretty good for 4-4 in the Big Ten with an outside shot at 5-3, but I know I’m a little more optimistic about Northwestern than most of my Athlon colleagues. I should know better, but it’s tough to ignore the skill position talent on offense with Kain Colter and Venric Mark. And that's just the start. Northwestern returns 15 starters from a team that won 10 games, led the Big Ten in takeaways, beat Mississippi State by two touchdowns in a bowl game and lost two of their three games in overtime and by one point. Throw in Northwestern’s chance to score an upset in Big Ten play, and I’ll take the over on four wins for the Cats.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The first thing to understand about the 2013 Northwestern team is that it might be the most talented squad ever assembled in Evanston. The coaching staff is excellent and the depth is better than it has ever been before. However, the schedule is nasty. Every team in the Legends Division with the exception of Iowa has gotten better around them while crossover play includes the best two teams in the Leaders Division — Ohio State and at Wisconsin. The good news is three crucial divisional showdowns with Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan will take place at home. There is a lot to be excited about with this team and if the offensive line can come together quickly, the Wildcats could develop into a surprise contender. But until this team proves it can consistently defeat teams that are clearly more talented — aka Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan a year ago — I can't pick Pat Fitzgerald's group to win more than three or four Big Ten games. Games on the road against Nebraska and Wisconsin as well at home tilts against conference championship game favorites Ohio State and Michigan mean anything over .500 in Big Ten would be a big success for Northwestern in '13. Give this team Michigan State's schedule and it could push for a Rose Bowl berth.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Considering how close Northwestern was to finishing 12-1 or even 13-0 last season, the Wildcats have to be in the discussion to win the Big Ten Legends Division in 2013. The only problem? A challenging schedule that features crossover matchups against Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Wildcats also have to play Nebraska on the road but host Michigan and Michigan State in Evanston.
With the challenging crossover slate, matching last season’s 5-3 mark in conference play seems like the most realistic scenario. I think Northwestern can beat Michigan and Michigan State in November, although it won’t be easy with the games in back-to-back weeks. Assuming the Wildcats win those two matchups in November, that leaves Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin as the losses. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pat Fitzgerald’s team pull off an upset over the Buckeyes or Badgers, but I have to go with 5-3 as the final record in Big Ten play.
Kevin McGuire, No2MinuteWarning.com and NittanyLionsDen.com, (@KevinonCFB)
I have said for years that Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald gets more out of his available talent than anyone else in the Big Ten. My biggest question about the Wildcats though is just how high is the ceiling?
Last year Northwestern was the master of blowing second half leads, but I think Fitzgerald has a good shot at finding ways to finish the job with a somewhat experienced roster coming back with 15 starters from a year ago. The Wildcats have players that can cause some problems for opposing defenses (Kain Colter, Venric Mark) but I have concerns about their offensive line and their defensive backs. Those two units are going to cost Northwestern at some point.
A quick look at the schedule shows a somewhat challenging year ahead of Northwestern. I would pencil in losses to Ohio State and Michigan but Northwestern gets those games at home. Road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska could be losses if I were to pick right now, and there is something about going on the road to Cal to open the season against Sonny Dykes and his new-look Bears that worries me. I may be a bit of a pessimist looking at Northwestern this season, but I think they would be fortunate to end the regular season with eight wins, but I think seven is more realistic.
Mark Ross (@AthlonSports)
The Wildcats will probably start the season as a top-25 team and I think they have a good shot of finishing as one too. I fully expect this team to make it six straight bowl games under coach Pat Fitzgerald and I also think they have a chance to match last year's win total of 10 when all is said and done. However, to accomplish the latter they will need to likewise match 2012's Big Ten record of 5-3, and based on this season's conference slate, this will be no easy task.
Northwestern can't avoid Michigan, Nebraska or Michigan State since they are all in the Legends Division. Those three games should be the toughest in their own division, although the Wildcats catch a slight break by getting the Wolverines and Spartans at home. That's pretty much where the breaks stop, however, with Fitzgerald's team drawing Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders side, along with what should be a gimme at Illinois to close out the regular season. Northwestern needs to win at least two of the Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin matchups to have any shot at repeating last season's 5-3 Big Ten mark.
I am a big Fitzgerald fan and also think the Wildcat offense led by running back Venric Mark and the quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian has a chance to be pretty special. The optimist in me has Northwestern successfully navigating the aforementioned difficult games on its Big Ten schedule while taking care of business during the other weeks. In the end, these Wildcats find a way to do no worse than last season's third-place finish in the Legends division by going 5-3 in conference play.
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