Northwestern is coming off only the third 10-win season in school history (the Wildcats began playing football in 1875) and again should contend for a top-25 finish. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff have ramped up recruiting, and the Wildcats are bigger and faster all around as a result. There are playmakers on both sides of the ball, and the overall talent level is in the top half of the Big Ten -- and remember this is Northwestern, which won just its second bowl in its history last season.
The schedule is tougher than last season (Ohio State and Wisconsin replace Indiana and Penn State on this fall's slate), but this is a veteran team that doesn't beat itself. If QB Kain Colter remains healthy, it's not a stretch to think Northwestern can finish second in the Legends Division.
Top Wildcats in the NFLNorthwestern has produced numerous outstanding football players, take a look at the top currently playing in the NFL.
Top senior prospects
K Jeff Budzien: Budzien is consistent -- he was 19-of-20 on field-goal attempts last season and is 101-of-101 on extra points in his career -- but lacks a big leg. His longest make last season was 44 yards, and he missed a 53-yarder on his only attempt from beyond 44 yards. And he never has handled kickoffs for the Wildcats.
QB Kain Colter: While he doesn't have ideal size (6-foot-0, 190 pounds), Colter is supremely athletic and a dangerous playmaker. He has played a lot at wide receiver in each of the past two seasons and also is a solid runner when the Wildcats use the zone read. Colter must improve as a passer, though, if he wants to be a quarterback in the NFL.
RB Venric Mark: Mark (5-8, 175), from the Houston area, was a revelation last season as the Wildcats' featured back. After serving as a big-time return man in his first two seasons on campus, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He had eight 100-yard games and averaged six yards per carry. He also has three return touchdowns in his career and owns a 16.3-yard average on punt returns. He became a bigger part of the passing attack last season and that is an area in which he needs to continue to improve. His lack of size seemingly precludes him from being an every-down back in the NFL.
ILB Damien Proby: Proby (6-0, 235), a native of Las Vegas, has improved each season. He led the Wildcats with 112 tackles last season and had six games with 10 or more stops. He is a physical presence against the run.
DE Tyler Scott: Scott (6-4, 265) was an outside linebacker in high school, but added 45 pounds and has settled in nicely at end for the Wildcats. He had nine sacks last season, tying for the league lead. Scott had a big performance in a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State last season, with seven tackles, two sacks and a quarterback hurry. His pass-rushing skills make him an intriguing prospect.
OLB Chi Chi Ariguzo: He started for the first time as a sophomore last season and was third on the team with 91 tackles. Ariguzo has nice size (6-3, 220), runs well and made more than a few big plays last season, finishing with three sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four fumble recoveries and five pass breakups. Look for him to be able to add a few pounds without losing his quickness.
SS Ibraheim Campbell: After redshirting as a true freshman in 2010, Campbell (5-11, 205) has been a steady -- and often spectacular -- performer for the Wildcats. He has made 189 tackles in the past two seasons, with four picks, 16 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He lacks elite speed, but is a huge hitter with a high football IQ. He has a chance to earn All-America honors.
FS Traveon Henry: Henry (6-1, 200) is expected to be a first-time starter this fall. Henry, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has good speed and can lay the lumber. His ball skills are suspect, though.
CB Nick VanHoose: VanHoose (6-0, 185) was an All-Big Ten freshman performer last season after redshirting in 2011. He is a big-time athlete who had three interceptions and seven pass breakups last season. VanHoose also was a key special-teams performer.
C Brandon Vitabile: He redshirted as a true freshman in 2010 but has started 26 consecutive games heading into his junior season. Vitabile (6-3, 300) is the best center in the Big Ten. He is an economics major and should get a chance to put that degree to use when he invests the money he eventually will make in the NFL.
FB Dan Vitale: Vitale plays what Northwestern calls the "superback" position, which is a hybrid fullback/tight end/receiver spot. Vitale (6-2, 220) won the starting role as a true freshman last season and proved to be an effective blocker and receiver (28 receptions for 288 yards and two touchdowns). He should play an even bigger role this season. Cool factoid: He attended the same high school (Wheaton-Warrenville South in Wheaton, Ill.) as Pro Football Hall of Famer Red Grange and John Belushi.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 5 vs. Ohio State: Nothing like opening your conference schedule against the team thought to be the best in the league. At least the game is in Evanston. Colter will be throwing against one of the nation's best secondaries, Mark will be running against one of the nation's best defensive back sevens and Scott will be lining up across from a veteran offensive line.
Oct. 12 at Wisconsin: This will be one of the biggest games of the season in the Legends Division. Can Northwestern's defensive front seven handle Wisconsin's bruising offensive line? Proby and Ariguzo will be on the spot.
Nov. 2 at Nebraska: This could determine who finishes second -- and maybe even first -- in the Legends Division. Northwestern's linebackers again will go against a big, physical offensive line, and Campbell and Henry will be tested by a diversified Nebraska offense.