Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian returns to help lead the Wildcats' offense. (Bradley Leeb / USA Today Sports / November 30, 2013)
The Orlando Sentinel's college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country entering the 2014 season. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 128 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 23: Northwestern Wildcats
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (55-46, entering eighth season; 55-46 overall)
2013 record: 5-7 (1-7 in Big Ten Conference, sixth in Legends Division)
Look back: After winning 10 games in 2012, Northwestern took a major step backward last season, failing to qualify for a bowl for the first time since 2006 — coach Pat Fitzgerald's first season with the program. The Wildcats won their first four games, even rising to No. 18 in the top 25 poll. But a much anticipated showdown with Ohio State ended in disaster, with the 'Cats losing 40-30. Following the loss, the team took a nose dive and racked up six straight losses. They finished out the season with a tight win over Illinois — the Wildcats' only conference victory of the season. That lone league win was the worst showing by a Northwestern team in the Big Ten in more than a decade.
Offensive starters returning: 9
Offensive starters lost: 2
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 2
Key losses: QB Kain Colter, WR Rashad Lawrence, LB Damien Proby, DE Tyler Scott, PK Jeff Budzien, P Brandon Williams
Top returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Treyvon Green, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell, S Traveon Henry
Strengths: Myriad of injuries on the offensive side of the ball hampered Northwestern's efforts last season as the Wildcats saw their production dip from 31 points per game in 2012 to just 26 points in 2013. Former Olympia High standout Trevor Siemian takes over the starting quarterback duties after sharing the job with Kain Colter for the past couple of seasons. Siemian completed just under 60 percent of his passes for 2,149 yards with 11 touchdowns while battling a nagging foot injury last season. “We weren't where we wanted to be a year ago, and it starts and ends at our quarterback position,” Fitzgerald said during Big Ten media days. “We're excited to have Trevor back.”
Running back Venric Mark missed much of last season with an ankle injury, forcing Treyvon Green to pick up the slack in the ground game. Mark appears healthy and having Green as his backup provides Northwestern with a formidable backfield rotation.
Northwestern led the Big Ten in interceptions (19) and its four interceptions for touchdowns tied for first in the conference. Linebacker Collin Ellis was second on the team with three interceptions, returning two of them for scores. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell led the team with four interceptions apiece.
Weaknesses: The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten in punting (33.2 yards per punt) and must deal with the departure of punter Brandon Williams. Junior Chris Gradone saw limited action in 2013 and will step into the starting role in 2014. Kicker Jeff Budzien is also gone after connecting on 92 percent of his field goals last season for Northwestern. His replacement looks to be Arthur Omillian.
Outlook: Much of the focus on Northwestern early on this offseason centered around a possible formation of a player's union. Now the focus has shifted back to the football field. While the Wildcats struggled much of last season, the outlook is still promising for the program. If everyone stays healthy, this team has enough returning talent to do big things in 2014.
Aug. 30 California
Sept. 6 Northern Illinois
Sept. 20 Western Illinois