With just under two weeks until I'm tailgating in the West Lot outside of Ryan Field again, it's time for my opening thoughts on my beloved Northwestern Wildcats.
The Cats are coming off a strong season where they went 9-4 and lost in overtime in the Alamo Bowl. While they lost several key players, there are still a number of reasons to believe that they could qualify for another solid bowl game this season.
This is Northwestern's deepest and most experienced unit by far. All four starters return from last season, as well as junior Justan Vaughn, who started the first two games at cornerback.
Sherrick McManis, who broke up 12 passes and intercepted two passes last year, is one of the best cover corners in the conference. Jordan Maybin was also solid in his true freshman season, posting three interceptions and five passes broken up last year.
Brandan Smith and Brad Phillips will man the safety spots, and both are solid veterans. Phillips led the team with 109 tackles and also intercepted three passes, while Smith managed to make 82 tackles and intercept two passes of his own, including the memorable interception return for a touchdown to win the Minnesota game.
Both safeties also collected six pass deflections on the season.
Besides the previously mentioned Vaughn, there are a number of athletic underclassmen that will be fighting for playing time. Players like Mike Bolden, David Arnold and Brian Peters could make an impact in nickel and dime packages, injury fill-ins or on special teams.
Everyone should know about Corey Wootton at this point. The senior All-American candidate had a monstrous season last year, registering 10 sacks and making the coaches' All-Big Ten team. With his size and quickness, he has a chance to be an early selection in the NFL draft after this season.
Though he suffered a nasty knee injury in the Alamo Bowl, Corey has been a full participant in camp with only a few precautionary exceptions. It appears that he will be back at full strength before they open their Big Ten schedule.
Though Wootton rightfully gets most of the publicity, Vince Browne is a potential impact player at end as well. Despite missing the team's final three games and coming off the bench for most of the year, the sophomore still managed to accumulate seven and a half tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.
While an injury to either player could seriously hurt the defense due to a lack of experienced backups, this duo should make life difficult for opposing linemen.
Though the line was expected to be a weakness entering last year because of the high turnover, the unit played fairly well and returns five players with starting experience.
Sophomores Al Netter and Ben Burkett started every game at left tackle and center respectively, while senior Desmond Taylor started eleven games at right tackle and two at right guard. Doug Bartels also returns after starting the final nine games at right guard last year.
Which player will join those four returning starters and where they will line up is still up in the air. Taylor could be moved to right guard if a talented underclassmen like Neil Dieters or Patrick Ward steps up. Kurt Mattes, who started two games at right tackle last year, is another potential option under that setup.
The team also might opt to start veteran backup Keegan Grant at guard and keep Taylor outside.
However the lineup gets shuffled, this should be a strong unit that should take the pressure off the rest of the offense.
Northwestern's season will probably come down to how effective their new skill position players can be in their increased roles.
NU lost star running back Tyrell Sutton and starting quarterback C.J. Bacher to graduation, so there is definitely some uncertainty with the offense. Quarterback Mike Kafka has some starting experience and Stephen Simmons filled in for the injured Sutton at the end of last season, but neither distinguished themselves in that role.
Kafka is a very different style of quarterback than Bacher.
While C.J. committed quite a few turnovers that hurt the team over the last two seasons, he was still a more polished passer than Kafka and could hurt you when he was playing well.
Kafka, on the other hand, is far more dangerous than Bacher was when running the ball. He ran for an outstanding 217 yards against Minnesota and also managed 89 yards against Ohio State, albeit on far too many attempts.
If Kafka can be at least serviceable in the passing game and keep his mistakes to a minimum, the team should be in decent shape.
However, he has to make people respect the passing game and take some pressure off of an inexperienced backfield.
Several running backs will likely see the field until someone steps up and takes control of the position. Stephan Simmons appears to have the inside track, but he'll have to improve on his 2.9 yards per carry to keep the job.
Several younger players will also likely get a chance in the backfield. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews probably has the most upside, but numerous other underclassmen like Scott Concannon, Alex Daniel, Arby Fields and Mike Trumpy could also emerge.
While it's unlikely that any of these players will be as explosive and dangerous as Tyrell Sutton was, they appear to be talented enough to be productive behind their solid offensive line.
The three leading receivers from last year graduated, leaving the Cats with a relatively inexperienced group of wide receivers. When you consider that Sutton also contributed 305 receiving yards last season, the passing game definitely has some catching up to do.
While Andrew Brewer, Sidney Stewart and Jeremy Ebert all have significant game experience, they could struggle to replace the consistent production of Ross Lane, Eric Peterman and Rasheed Ward. The Cats also typically use at least three wide receivers, so several other players will likely have to step up and contribute.
When combined with the potentially spotty passing ability of Kafka, Northwestern would probably prefer to keep the ball on the ground.
While their offense clearly has some holes to fill, there is also plenty of talent in Evanston this year. The defense is full of productive and athletic players that should keep them in games until the offense catches up.
It also helps that their schedule is pretty forgiving. They open with two tune-up games against Towson and Eastern Michigan and follow that up with a winnable road game against Syracuse. They also miss Ohio State and Michigan this year in Big Ten play.
The Cats should be able to win most of their early games with a relatively low risk and run heavy attack, but the offense will need to make some progress by the Michigan State game on Oct. 17. Though they face Indiana home after that tough road game, they follow that with Penn State at home and trips to Iowa and Illinois.
Northwestern should probably be favored in each of their first six games and still host what should be winnable games against Indiana and Wisconsin after that. The schedule sets up well for them to win seven or eight games without including wins in any of their tougher games.
If they find a way to get some production on offense, there is the potential for a big season in Evanston. Even if they struggle a bit, there's a good chance they could match last season's total of nine wins thanks to an experienced defense and a relatively soft schedule.