Football Bowl Subdivision

NCAA Football Preview - Northwestern Wildcats

By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The 2013 Wildcats finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time in six seasons under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

It was a particularly frustrating campaign, considering one year earlier Northwestern went 10-3 and won a bowl game for the first time in 64 years.

Things got off to a promising enough start, which included a season-opening win at California (44-30) followed by consecutive home wins over Syracuse (48-27) and Western Michigan (38-17). The team went into its Week 5 bye at 4-0, but came out the other side and lost seven straight as postseason hopes crumbled.

One particularly frustrating stretch included three-point losses to Minnesota and at Nebraska, an overtime loss at Iowa and a triple-overtime setback against Michigan.

For the Wildcats to put it together in 2014 and get back to the postseason, they'll need to find a way to pull out the close games.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: There was no quarterback controversy in Evanston this summer as Trevor Siemian has the job to himself after a year in which he ceded snaps to dual-threat Kain Colter, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings.

"He's thrown for going on 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns," coach Fitzgerald said at Big Ten media day. "That's more than (Dan) Persa and (Mike) Kafka had going into their senior years. To have that kind of experience at the quarterback position hopefully will be a great jolt for our offense that we all know as Wildcats need to improve."

"We weren't where we wanted to be a year ago, and it starts and ends at our quarterback position. We're excited to have Trevor back."

In the backfield, Treyvon Green returns for his senior season after averaging 5.4 yards on 137 carries (736 yds) and rushing for 8 TDs. Also back are the top two pass catchers from a year ago in Tony Jones (55 rec, 630 yds, 4 TDs) and Christian Jones (54 rec, 668 yds, 4 TDs).

The offensive line returns intact.

DEFENSE: The defense also appears to be in good shape with nine starters returning. Headlining the unit is senior linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, who racked up 106 tackles and intercepted 4 passes in 2013. Fellow returning starter Collin Ellis was also active in the passing game, as he picked off 3 passes to go along with 78 stops.

The entire starting defensive backfield is back, led by the playmaking safety tandem of Ibraheim Campbell (73 tackles, 4 INTs) and Traveon Henry (77 tackles, 1 INT).

Up front, tackles Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly proved to be stout at the point of attack, although the team needs more production in the pass rush. Defensive end Dean Lowry logged only 4.5 sacks despite playing regular snaps.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Chris Gradone has the job all to himself after backing up Brandon Williams a year ago as a sophomore. Gradone had 11 punts and averaged only 37.8 yards, although he had a long of 61 yards and placed five kicks inside the 20.

Redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander will try to replace kicker Jeff Budzien, who converted 23-of-25 field goal attempts last season.

OUTLOOK: Coach Fitzgerald, a former standout linebacker for the Wildcats (1993-96), enters his ninth year at the helm with what figures to be a well- balanced team. Overall, he returns 18 starters; nine each on offense and defense. He said the Wildcats need to get back to re-establishing their identity this year.

"I look at the way we played up front on both sides of the ball," Fitzgerald said. "We were not successful enough to be consistent in this league from stopping the run, running the ball, protecting the quarterback, knocking the quarterback down defensively, all those types of things."

The Wildcats open conference play at Penn State on Sept. 27. They desperately want to win that one after last season's dismal 1-7 mark in the Big Ten.

Among the other intriguing matchups is the Oct. 18 date with Nebraska, which beat the Wildcats on a last-second Hail Mary a year ago. They won't play league favorites Ohio State or Michigan State, although a three-week stretch at Iowa, home versus Michigan, and at Notre Dame looks like trouble.

08/20 12:41:52 ET