Northwestern won 10 games last season after going 5-7 in each of the two seasons prior. They started the year off by beating the Stanford Cardinal, who went on to throttle Iowa in the Rose Bowl, but the two really draw no comparisons from me, given the time of the year the games were played.
They wound up losing three games, once to Michigan by a final of 38-0, once to Iowa by a score of 40-10, and then to the Tennessee Volunteers in the Outback Bowl, 45-6. Northwestern didn't have a real tough schedule, but it seems like when they played anybody noteworthy, they got pounded.
They're probably staring three or more losses in the face again this year. They have to go on the road to play Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State in three of five straight Saturdays with the other two being a game at home against Indiana and a bye week.
They did most of their damage on the ground last season. They'll return Justin Jackson, who ran the ball 312 times for 1,418 yards and five touchdowns. The starting quarterback, Clayton Thorson, was the second leading rusher, rushing 100 times for 397 yards. He wasn't quite as effective through the air, however. Thorson threw for 1,522 yards in his freshman season and threw seven touchdowns to go along with nine interceptions.
They'll graduate their leading receiver from a season ago in Dan Vitale, their tight end, so they'll be looking for more playmakers on the outside. However, Thorson does have to do something about getting them the ball.
The offensive line will have three seniors and one junior on it, so they're fairly experienced in that department. The biggest question marks are going to be how far Thorson comes as a gun slinger and who is going to be catching passes from him. You become fairly easy to beat when you're one dimensional.
This is where the Wildcats made their money. They allowed just 18.6 points per game a season ago, which was good for 12th out of 128 active FBS teams. They held their opponents to less than 10 points in four of their 10 wins this past season.
Pat Fitzgerald has always been more of a defensive guy and that showed last season with his team. They'll return their top two leading tacklers from last season, but will graduate Deonte Gibson, who led the team in sacks with nine. If Thorson is his same old self this upcoming season, the Wildcats will be looking for the defense to carry them again this season.
The Wildcats absolutely have to come up with something in the passing game because they won't be able to beat top tier teams with just their running game in Jackson and their defense.
It seems like the Wildcats always give Iowa fits, with the exception of last season. The Hawkeyes have won this game in four out of the last five meetings, but Northwestern won five of six from 2005-2010.
I believe Iowa has too much talent again this year for the Wildcats. I just didn't see enough from Thorson last season that would lead me to believe that he is capable of leading this team over a really good Iowa team in Iowa City. Justin Jackson will get his fair share of carries and yards, but it won't take long before Iowa loads the box and neutralizes that running game.
With Northwestern's lack of receivers and Iowa's talented secondary, I just don't see the Wildcats getting much on the offensive side. Their defense will be stout, but if they spend too much time on the field, that Iowa running game will wear them down and will take whatever they want.
I like Iowa to win and move to 5-0 by a final of 30-14. I think they have another field day on the ground with that two pronged attack in LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley.