The key for the Orange will be the passing game. Syracuse returns veteran quarterback Ryan Nassib, who's had two seasons as the starter and showed improvement last year.
Nassib completed just over 62 percent of his passes in 2011 and had a strong 22-9 TD to interception ratio. Expect the Syracuse offense to look a lot like Northwestern, with short passes under 15 yards and a lot of steady moving the ball down the field. They do return top receiver Alec Lemon, who has good size and speed and had a real breakout season in 2011.
The SU running game is a bit more of a question mark, with top runner Antwon Bailey departing. Bailey was a 1000-yard rusher, and the second leading rusher had just 134 yards, so there isn't a ton of experience on the ground.
The key for the ‘Cats will be to pressure Nassib. If the secondary can keep receivers in front of them for small gains and the run game can be contained, the Orange may consistently find themselves in third down situations.
NU's defense was a major question mark last year – and Coach Fitzgerald has been answering questions about it all off-season. Expect the unit to come out with a chip on their shoulder and ready to prove themselves.
Advantage: Northwestern (slight)
When Northwestern has the ball ...
Scoring has never been a problem for Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald, and this year isn't likely to be any different. Kain Colter has a year of consistent playing time under his belt, NU boasts one of the best groups of receivers in the nation, and there are multiple running backs with experience and a lot of talent.
Long story short, this team is ready to score.
And Syracuse wasn't exactly a defensive team in 2011. The Orange allowed just over 28 points per game while giving up 128 yards per game on the ground and 258 in the air.
Turnovers shouldn't be a huge concern for the ‘Cats, as Syracuse also has to replace Phillip Thomas in the secondary. Thomas snagged 6 picks last year, but left school early.
NU has a solid returner in Venric Mark. He's quick footed, has good overall speed and will be able to find good lanes. He may have a tendency towards pushing for a big play and making mistakes, but another year of maturity should keep those at a minimum.
Syracuse had almost no punt return game last year, averaging just 3.1 yards per return. The Orange did have one kick returned for a touchdown last year, but Dorian Graham departed. NU has the advantage in the return game.
Kicking-wise, Syracuse has a solid foot in Ross Krautman. He knocked in 15 of 19 field goals last year and 18 of 19 the year before, with a career long of 48. He's got leg and consistent accuracy, and could give Syracuse a real lift.
For the ‘Cats, Jeff Budzien was 6-10 kicking last year with a long of 47, so he has a strong leg and will likely improve significantly this year. Because Syracuse has more experience, however, they have the advantage in the kicking game. Expect each team to kick a few field goals and for the kicking game to make a bigger impact than the return game. With slow, methodical drives and short passing games, there may not be a ton of punts.
Advantage: Syracuse (slight)
Pat Fitzgerald is treated as one step below a God in Evanston and it's easy to see why. An NU man through and through, Fitz is tough, smart and not afraid to take risks. The offense has been consistent in the past couple of years, and with his experience at linebacker, don't expect Fitzgerald to put up with the same shoddy tackling that plagued the team for much of the 2011 campaign.
For Syracuse, Doug Marrone has been everywhere, coaching offensive line for Georgia Tech, Georgia and Tennessee, then coaching for the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints before landing at Syracuse. He's got great credentials and already brought ‘Cuse a bowl win (something that still eludes Fitzgerald). Despite that, Fitz has a ton of experience as a head coach and has a sterling 6-0 record in opening games.
Syracuse is playing on home turf in the Carrier Dome, which will likely be loud and pretty bright orange. But don't expect NU to be starry-eyed or nervous. The ‘Cats have played in Camp Randall, The Big House and the Horseshoe, so they won't be intimidated.
Both teams have strong leaders on both sides of the ball with a lot of experience, though Syracuse has a bit more experience in the quarterback position. Syracuse really has something to prove after a disappointing 5-game losing streak to end 2011, but NU always comes in with high expectations and a lot to prove.
Advantage: Northwestern (slight)
A fast start is key to the ‘Cats to keep the crowd out of the game as much as possible. It'll also be key to keep Nassib uncomfortable and pressured in the pocket. Both teams can score and have experience on the offensive end, but both teams will have a lot to prove defensively.
Expect some early-season jitters and some penalties at the start. Once the game settles down, it'll be a drive-heavy game with probably very few big plays. The NU offense and Colter's dual-threat abilities will wear down on Syracuse and the ‘Cats will come up with a timely second half turnover, however, and sneak away from Syracuse with a win.