There is no way around it: If Northwestern wants to come close to replicating the success of last season in 2013, it needs a strong offensive line to do so.
Of course, saying the offensive line is important to a team's success is like saying scoring touchdowns is a good way to win a football game. But the point here is fairly simple: this is unequivocally the most important task for the team to tackle during training camp.
We know what to expect from Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian, Venric Mark and the slew of returners who were critical to last year's 10-win campaign. But with the losses of Patrick Ward, Neil Deiters and Brian Mulroe, at this point there's little we know about how three parts of the offensive line will shape up.
To run the read option–one of the lynchpins of the Northwestern playbook–you need a solid o-line. To protect a running back like Mark, whose size and running style don't lend themselves well to getting clobbered play after play, you need a solid o-line. If the Wildcats want to make a run at the Big Ten championship, they need a solid o-line.
It's that simple, but it's not clear right now that they have one. We'll find out more in summer practices.
The dual quarterback system will be more successful than last year: Buy
The old saying goes: "If you have two quarterbacks, you have none." But things are done a little differently in Evanston.
Even so, different doesn't necessarily mean effective, and there was plenty of proof that the dual quarterback system Northwestern employed last season had its share of kinks. All too often, Colter and Siemian were swapped as each situation dictated it, which failed to let either quarterback fall into a groove.
But what we saw in Jacksonville against Mississippi State was much different than what we saw earlier in the season against Penn State and Minnesota. Instead of letting the course of the game dictate quarterback changes, Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall dictated the course of the game with quarterback changes.
Nick Medline will discuss this point in greater detail tomorrow, but for me it comes down to two simple ideas: Northwestern knows what to do, and the team has time to nail it down.
Northwestern deserves to be ranked higher than #22: Sell
For me, the word "arbitrary" is defined by pre-season polls. While they're useful in gauging what the college football world thinks about itself, they don't do much in the way of successfully determining which teams are better than others. That's why the games are played.
If you asked me a week ago what Northwestern would be ranked, I would have said #19, for no reason other than "Eh, I mean it seems right." It's not that Northwestern doesn't have the ability to be better than the 22nd best team in college football at season's end; it's that I don't think #22 is a bad ranking for a team with Northwestern's strengths and weaknesses.
As far as "deserving" a higher ranking goes, no team really deserves its ranking until they earn it on the field. The polls as they are now explain nothing more than what college football thinks about its teams, and when have the Wildcats ever cared about what anyone thought about them anyway?
Northwestern has the ability to go to the Rose Bowl: Buy
Though it's utterly pointless to try to predict in August how games in October and November will play out, it's not too hard to see Northwestern competing for the Big Ten championship. The team as assembled now is not that different than it was last year, and last year's team was pretty darn good. The Wildcats came within a field goal and a miracle pass from beating Nebraska and Michigan, thereby sweeping the Legends division and earning a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Each team in the conference will experience its own evolution, ups and downs, so few completely impenetrable walls blocking the way to Pasadena come to mind for me.
Getting there will likely require beating Ohio State at least once, whether in Evanston or Indianapolis, and there's no shortage of excellent teams that can ruin Northwestern's Rose Bowl dreams. Even so, none of them are anything the Wildcats aren't seemingly capable of taking on. Whether or not they will do it successfully is yet to be determined.
A Wildcat will win a high-profile individual award next season: Sell
With apologies to Jeff Budzien and the masterminds of the Budzien For Groza campaign (which I love), I wouldn't put money on him winning the award for outstanding kicker in the sport, nor Mark the Doak Walker Award, nor anyone winning any of the "watch list" honors for which they are nominated.
That isn't to say they can't. It's just that I wouldn't put any money on it. Fitz's displeasure with Budzien's snub from the Groza finalists last season was well documented, and the snub itself was somewhat questionable. He made 50 out of 50 extra points, 19 out of 20 field goals, and the only one he missed was the failed 53-yarder against Nebraska that would have won the game.
A slew of Wildcats are on watch lists, but I believe the standard is higher for a school easily overshadowed and preemptively dismissed for some of the traditional college football powerhouses and their stars. Besides, the Wildcats consistently add up to more than the sum of their parts, and these parts are quite formidable, even if they aren't individually recognized with awards.