Of course, with Northwestern, such things rarely matter. It is assumed the Wildcats will never recruit a class higher than ninth. In fact, going back to 2002, when Rivals started keeping records, Northwestern has never had a recruiting class ranked higher than ninth.
That is the limitation of being a school that holds student-athletes to high academic standards.
Of course, just because NU will never recruit with the big boys, doesn't mean they can't play with them. They are the seventh-winningest team in the Big Ten over that time (this doesn't include Nebraska), and that means they are bringing in players that can succeed in their system.
The Cats went heavy on the O-linemen in this class—four—none of whom are likely to make an impact in their first year. On the other hand, they did bring in some skill-position players that might be able to help out.
The first is running back Treyvon Green. At 5'9" and almost 200 lbs., he is physically ready to jump right in there. If NU continues to struggle at running back, Green might be able to help. Furthermore, he could complement Trumpy if the other backs don't make any impact.
Cornerback Jarrell Williams is a player that could move right in to pass defense packages and special teams. As Northwestern offered him and he committed during his junior year of high school, it is obvious Pat Fitzgerald and the Cat coaches are very high on him.
Last season, the most indispensable player on any Big Ten team was not Terrelle Pryor, Denard Robinson or Mikel Leshoure. It was either Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien or Dan Persa.
Unlike Tolzien, who remained healthy all year, Persa went down at the end of the Iowa game and the Cats fell to pieces. They lost their last two (Persa-less) regular season games by a combined score of 50-118.
They were still Persa-less in the bowl game and were respectable, but it goes to show how much he means to this team. This year, Northwestern has experienced quarterbacks behind Dan Persa, but the shark-loving senior from Bethlehem, Pa. is still the heart-and-soul of this team.
If he goes down, Northwestern will struggle to win five games.
Then there is the schedule. The Cats have had a decent team for the last two years, but the first six weeks of their schedules in both 2009 and 2010 have been cakewalks.
Moreover, they haven't played a truly challenging out-of-conference opponent since they were stomped by Arizona State, 52-21 in 2005.
Boston College will have one of the best defenses in the country. Will a legitimate early season test derail the Cats' hopes?
09/03: At Boston College. Northwestern is the underdog.
09/10: Eastern Illinois (FCS). Northwestern is the heavy favorite.
09/17: At Army. Favorite
10/01: At Illinois. Slight underdog.
10/08: Michigan. Slight underdog.
10/15: At Iowa. Slight underdog.
10/22: Penn State. Underdog.
10/29: At Indiana. Favorite.
11/05: At Nebraska. Heavy underdog.
11/12: Rice. Favorite.
11/19: Minnesota. Favorite.
11/26: Michigan State. Underdog.
Best Case Scenario
Dan Persa comes out as healthy as ever and better than last year. The experience on the NU line finally comes to fruition. The Cats upset BC in slugfest that pits strength on strength—Northwestern's O vs Boston College's D.
The defensive line is better than expected and the linebackers are respectable. NU proceeds to cream Eastern Illinois and Army and win three out of their first four conference games. They rout Indiana but lose to Nebraska in a close one.
The Cats pound on both Rice and Minnesota and barely beat Michigan State in a game that surprisingly turns out to be for the Big Ten West championship.
They go to the championship game but lose and wind up with a 10-3 season and a bid to the Capital One Bowl.
Worst Case Scenario
Persa comes out a bit gun shy and the Cats lose badly to start the season. They beat EIU and squeak by Army but lose their first four conference games before winning one at Indiana.
The defense just isn't cutting it, and Persa and the running game never get into form.
Nebraska puts a hurt on the other NU, and with three wins on their resume, the Cats have to win their final three games to get bowl eligible.
They win the first two, but Michigan State wins the season finale handily and Northwestern stays home for the winter at 5-7.
Despite being an Iowa fan, I have an overwhelming respect for Northwestern football over the last 12 years and two coaches.
Randy Walker and now Pat Fitzgerald have not only fielded competitive football teams, but they have done it against all the odds. Not to mention they have done it adhering to Northwestern's strict academic standards.
Under Walker and Fitzgerald, they have almost always overachieved to the point that it is somewhat impossible to predict how they will do.
Nonetheless, that is exactly what I'm going to try to do.
To begin with, I'm a bit tentative as it concerns Persa's recovery. From what I've read here and there, a regular person can make a full recovery in six to eight months, but Persa is an athlete.
Dan Marino tore his Achilles tendon and came back the next season, but Marino rarely stepped out of the pocket. At the very least, he was not the quarterback in a read option scheme.
Moreover, while I am usually a major adherent of experience on the O-line, this O-line has been decidedly underwhelming for the past two seasons. Will the experience help them this year? Yes, but I'm not expecting NU to do a repeat of 2010 Wisconsin's line.
Finally, the D-line also returns a lot, but outside of Browne, they weren't very good last year. Couple that with issues in the linebacking corps, a tough OOC game against Boston College and I am lukewarm where it concerns the Cats.
I have them going 6-6 with wins against EIU, Army, Rice, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan.
History dictates they are more likely to beat Iowa than Michigan (though I don't see them winning both), but damn it all, Iowa has to win that one this year. They have to.
If only because last year, I stood in the rain in the worst college football stadium in the world, only to see the Hawks stink to high hell. But enough about that. This article is about Northwestern.
Even though I'm picking them to go 6-6, I feel they are the darkhorse in the conference this season.
If Persa is 100 percent, the offensive line lives up to its experience and the D-line improves enough to give the linebackers a chance to figure things out, this group could achieve that best case scenario.
That said, I'm calling for 6-6 with a trip to the Little Caesars Bowl. With a relatively healthy Persa, they should have a good chance to win their first bowl since Harry S. Truman was president.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Illinois Illini.