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Hoge's Big Ten Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

By Adam Hoge-

While Big Ten training camps are underway, Adam Hoge will devote an entire day to each of the 12 teams in the conference. He will include a preview on each team, plus news, notes and analysis on Twitter. He will also take your questions on Twitter and Follow him at @AdamHogeCBS.

(CBS) Last year was supposed to be the year Northwestern took that big step under Pat Fitzgerald. Dan Persa was a senior and the defense was going to be much better.

Unfortunately, Persa was never fully healthy and while the defense was a little better, it didn't improve as much as defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz wanted.

Ultimately the 2011 season was derailed by a surprising loss at Army in Week 3. But after five straight losses mid-season, Fitzgerald was able to right the ship and the Wildcats won four straight games -- including a shocker at Nebraska -- to earn their fourth straight bowl trip.

While Northwestern only returns 11 starters in 2012, many of the young faces that helped turn around the 2011 season are back and Fitz appears to be legitimately optimistic about a group that could start 10 sophomores or younger Saturday in the season opener.

Can the Wildcats get to a fifth straight bowl game this year? Let's take a look at their chances:

Top Returnees

1. S Ibraheim Campbell (So.) - Campbell led NU in tackles in 2011 and added 3.5 TFLs. He's a playmaker that has a bright future.

2. QB Kain Colter (Jr.) - Colter is a true triple-threat that every defense will have nightmares about in 2012.

3. OG Brian Mulroe (Sr.) - The veteran left guard leads an underrated offensive line.

4. WR Demetrius Fields (Sr.) - The senior should be the go-to receiving option this season.

5. OT Patrick Ward (Sr.) - At 6-7, 310 lbs., Northwestern is relying on Ward to deliver on the left side.

Key Questions

why is Kain Colter never mentioned as one of the best offensive players in the #B1G despite his crazy stats? Can he be? - @jamesscottlove

Colter played second-fiddle to Dan Persa the last two seasons and it didn't help that Northwestern underwhelmed last season. He has shown plenty of potential and he'll be featured a lot this season, whether it's at quarterback or at wide receiver. The coaches like Trevor Siemian at quarterback too and he'll see some time, but Colter will rarely be on the sideline. He'll get plenty of touches and considering he is NU's leading returning passer, rusher and receiver, all he needs is Northwestern to win games to get the national praise he deserves.

How did Kyle Prater not crack the starting lineup at WR? Are we that deep or did he underwhelm? - @bevans10

It does speak to the potential depth at the position, but it's pretty obvious that Prater just isn't ready yet. Some of it is health -- I believe it's more about being in game-shape rather than being injured -- and he's still picking up on the offense. This is a completely different system than the one he was in at USC. Prater still has a ton of potential and he is going to be a legitimate weapon for Northwestern, but they are going to ease him into the fire.

Will #Northwestern's running game be solved with Mark/Trumpy? Can D-line get pressure? Will secondary improve? @RevDJEsq

Venric Mark is listed as the starter, but both he and Trumpy will contribute. Trumpy is coming off a torn ACL, but is back at full strength. With a pretty good offensive line, Mark and Trumpy could give Northwestern the contributions it has been lacking in the backfield for a few years now.

I think we are going to have to wait and see with the defensive line. The 'Cats definitely need a new defensive tackle to emerge. There is some depth at defensive end as freshman Dean Lowry has emerged as a guy who will see playing time early.

The secondary will be a big key to the season. Northwestern has to avoid giving up the big plays and the loss of Brian Peters -- who had five interceptions last season -- hurts. That said, I believe Campbell is set to become a star in 2012. If reliable cornerbacks emerge -- redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose will start -- this could be an improved unit.

Do you think that NW has a chance of finally getting that bowl win in 2012? - @sheehy_mike

Yes, of course. They've had a chance to do that the last four years. Once you're bowl eligible -- and I expect NU to be eligible again this year -- it's all about matchups. Northwestern has been in all four of their recent bowl games. In fact, two of them went to overtime. This year is no different. The Wildcats are certainly capable of winning a bowl game. The players just need to execute and do it.

Schedule Outlook

Props to Northwestern for scheduling three non-conference games against BCS foes. No one does that. Sure, they aren't playing Alabama, but the Wildcats have three respectable games against Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College. More importantly, they can win all three.

The Big Ten slate is also favorable in that they can get off to a good start. Of course, if they don't play well, they could also start 1-2 in conference play. Back-to-back home games against Nebraska and Iowa will give Northwestern a chance to get on the national radar, while back-to-back road trips to the state of Michigan in November will be tough.

Best Case

Northwestern handles their three non-conference tests and gets out to a 4-0 record going into Big Ten play. They beat Indiana in Evanston and deliver on back-to-back road trips to Penn State and Minnesota to start 7-0. This sets up a huge game against Nebraska with the spotlight on a sold out Ryan Field. The next four weeks are tough, but the 'Cats come out of it with a 2-2 record. They finish with a big home win against Illinois to finish 10-2 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten. Depending on tiebreakers, this could send Northwestern to the Big Ten Championship Game.

Worst Case

A young team shows its inexperience and only comes out of the non-conference slate with a 2-2 record. After beating Indiana at home, the 'Cats drop road games at Penn State and Minnesota, entering the toughest part of the schedule on a rough note. From there, Northwestern only wins one game the rest of the season to finish a disappointing 4-8 on the season, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2007.

Check out Adam's final verdict on the Cornhuskers when his Big Ten preview concludes later this month. Up next in the series are the Northwestern Wildcats. Tweet your questions to Adam at @AdamHogeCBS.

Catch up on the series:
Aug. 8 – Illinois Fighting Illini
Aug. 10 – Indiana Hoosiers
Aug. 15 – Ohio State Buckeyes
Aug. 16 – Penn State Nittany Lions
Aug. 17 – Purdue Boilermakers
Aug. 20 – Wisconsin Badgers
Aug. 21 – Iowa Hawkeyes
Aug. 22 – Michigan Wolverines
Aug. 23 – Michigan State Spartans
Aug. 24 - Minnesota Golden Gophers
Aug. 28 - Nebraska Cornhuskers

Jeff Pearl
Adam Hoge

Adam is the Sports Editor for and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.


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