Willie the Wildcat
With realignment taking effect in the Big Ten this year, the Northwestern Wildcats face some new challenges.
The biggest one is the newest addition to the conference, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. That won't stop them from putting up a fight for the title.
Here are seven reasons why the Wildcats can pull off a conference championship.
Northwestern senior QB Dan Persa
Northwestern has 44 players, including 16 starters, returning from last year’s squad. Leading the pack of the returning class is a healthy-and-hungry senior starting quarterback, Dan Persa. Persa saw his season cut short when he ruptured his Achilles in a game against Iowa last year.
The quarterback has been on a rigorous rehab program and Fitzgerald hasn’t reported any major setbacks.
Persa said: “The injury’s 100 percent healed and now I’m just working to get my strength back. It’s been a long way and I’m looking forward to camp.”
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald
Pat Fitzgerald is one of the more intense coaches in not only the Big Ten, but in all D-1 football, and he is entering his sixth season as Northwestern head coach.
He knows what it takes to get to the next level since he, too, was on the Rose Bowl team in 1996. He won the Bronco Nagurski Award twice for being the best defensive player in NCAA football and won it once in a year he missed time due to a broken leg.
Fitzgerald also takes great pride in the fact he is a graduate of Northwestern and would do nothing to tarnish the name or reputation of the school he loves.
He also loves coaching, calling this the “most fun time of the year.”
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz are both entering their fourth years with the program, so all of the upperclassmen going into this year know the system and know it well.
Coaching changes in Pittsburgh are what made defensive end Deonte Gibson change his mind to Northwestern when leaving St. Edward High School in Ohio.
Backup QB Evan Watkins
They have three qualified quarterbacks along with two more waiting in the wings and their recruiting class is getting bigger and bigger every year.
Sixteen starters and both specialists return.
Four offensive linemen return, three viable options at running back, three senior receivers and, of course, Persa make up most of the offense. They also recruited at every position.
Bo Pelini, coach of the organization possibly standing in Northwestern's way
No Ohio State, Wisconsin or Purdue on the schedule.
Nebraska will be a very tough game, especially having to travel to Lincoln.
Nebraska has to face Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State.
Ohio State has Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State and Michigan on the schedule.
The Wildcats always match up well against Iowa, Penn State and Michigan State.
The experience must come into play against these teams. They have had major problems finishing games over the past two years.
Northwestern led in their matchups against PSU and MSU last year, but could not get the job done. This is where a defensive leader like Vince Browne needs to take charge and shut down the opposition.
Their out-of-conference opponents are Boston College, Eastern Illinois, Army and Rice.
BC is pegged to finish third in the Atlantic division of the ACC.
Rice is picked to finish fourth in Conference USA West and Northwestern beat them 30-13 last season.
Eastern Illinois should finish no higher than fifth in the Ohio Valley.
Army should put up a fight. Their appearance and victory in the Armed Forces Bowl last year ended a 13-year drought for the program.
Pat Fitzgerald hopes to silence Northwestern's critics this year
David vs. Goliath: Although they are getting more respect, Northwestern still isn't being taken as seriously as it should, even after making three-straight bowl-game appearances.
Northwestern is no longer just a school for those with a good amount of money who aspire to be lawyers and doctors.
The school’s athletic program has taken a turn for the better.
Give credit where credit is due. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips have resurrected the athletic department, beginning with the football program.
Their recruiting numbers grow every year and they set a school record in 2010 with 13 verbal commitments before Fitzgerald even set foot in the future athletes' home.
The team wound up finishing with 17 new faces, adding depth at all positions.
The departure of Jim Tressel could put a damper on OSU's Big Ten title hopes
Nebraska is in a new conference facing new teams with a new offensive coordinator. Lack of balance could hamper the Huskers in a conference like the Big Ten. Taylor Martinez can run as well as anyone, but his passing game is suspect.
Ohio State is without four starters for the first four games due to suspension and lost Terrelle Pryor and head coach Jim Tressel. It also lost eight starters on defense, which ranked fourth in the nation last year. Penn State has QB issues and the defense only accounted for 10 interceptions last year.
Wisconsin lost five key players, including offensive lineman Gabe Carimi and defensive end J.J. Watt, and their linebacking corps is extremely young.
Chicago's Big Ten Team
They are Chicago’s Big Ten team.
Maybe it has to do with the fact they are very close to Lake Michigan and U of I is three hours from the city. Maybe it doesn’t. This city thrives on championships and brushes with success.
The city was a sea of black and silver in October of 2005 when the White Sox won the World Series.
Chicago has once again become a hockey town with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane as two of the faces of the new NHL. Winning the Stanley Cup also didn’t hurt.
The streets in Wrigleyville were flooded with fans in 2007 and 2008 when the Cubs won the division, and the joy of the possibility of the curse being lifted.
This city has always held the Bears No.1 in their hearts, win or lose. A Super Bowl defeat to the Colts and an NFC championship game loss to their hated rivals has the city bearing down and hunting for that illustrious Super Bowl trophy.
Chicago also had a basketball player by the name of Michael Jordan and the city also has a kid named Derrick Rose now.
There are billboards across Chicago and one including the phrase "Persa Strong" off the Kennedy Expressway. Northwestern sent dumbbells with that phrase to media members across the country as well to prove they weren't joking around.