Northwestern (0-0) at Syracuse (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 1st, 12:00 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Carrier Dome (49,250) -- Syracuse, New York. Television: ESPN 2. Home Record: Northwestern 0-0, Syracuse 0-0 Away Record: Northwestern 0-0, Syracuse 0-0. Neutral Record: Northwestern 0-0, Syracuse 0-0. Conference Record: Northwestern 0-0, Syracuse 0-0. Series Record: Syracuse leads 5-4-0.
GAME NOTES: Pat Fitzgerald has never lost an opening game as head coach of the Northwestern Wildcats. The seventh-year coach will put that record on the line on Saturday when his Wildcats travel to the Carrier Dome to take on the Syracuse Orange.
It hasn't just been under Fitzgerald that the Wildcats have excelled on opening weekend with debut wins in 10 of the last 12 seasons. That included last season when Northwestern won its first two games. From there the Wildcats struggled though, losing five straight games. However a 4-1 stretch to end the regular season put the Wildcats in a bowl game for the fourth straight season. Northwestern lost that appearance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to Texas A&M 33-22.
After taking a step forward in 2010 when it finished 8-5, Syracuse regressed last season going 5-7 and landing on the outside looking in at the bowl season. The Orange started out well enough with wins in 5 of their first 7 games, but the team dropped 5 straight to close out the year and was a mere 1-6 in Big East play.
This marks the third time in the last five years that these two have squared off. Overall the teams have played nine times with Syracuse holding a narrow 5-4 edge. Syracuse downed Northwestern 37-34 on a last second field goal in 2009 in the Carrier Dome in the last meeting between these two programs.
Fitzgerald is coming into the second season of a 10-year contract extension he signed in May of 2011 and will be trying to push Northwestern even further despite the loss of a number of key players.
Kain Colter has the unenviable task of replacing Dan Persa at quarterback. Colter completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 673 yards and six touchdowns as the backup last season. He is also a threat to run after he led the team in rushing with 654 yards last season.
Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones both play in the slot as receivers and Rashad Lawrence will be on the outside for a largely inexperienced receiving corps that will be trying to replace All-Big Ten receiver Jeremy Ebert (75 receptions, 1,060 yards, 11 TDs). Tony Jones is back after missing all of last season with a a knee injury.
Northwestern lacks a real feature back, as evidenced by Colter's rushing tally in 2011. Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy will be the primary options this season.
The offensive line does return three starters and is considered a strength heading into the season.
Northwestern struggled on defense last year, allowing 407.7 ypg, good for just 11th in the Big Ten.
Turnover in terms of personnel this year won't help turn things around. David Nwabuisi is a senior linebacker who will lead a unit that is the most experienced in the defense. Nwabuisi had 84 total tackles and a team-leading 8.5 tackles for loss last season and he will be joined by fellow returning starter Collin Ellis.
Quentin Williams will anchor what could be a solid defensive line. Williams had only three sacks last season but will be joined by talented end Tyler Scott and defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, who both missed a great deal of time due to injury last season.
As seems to be the trend on the whole roster the Wildcats will also be replacing starters in the secondary. Ibraheim Campbell, the only returning starter, is certainly a nice piece to build around, as sophomore safety had an excellent freshmen campaign, leading the team with 100 total tackles.
For Syracuse the offense really hinges on the play of quarterback Ryan Nassib who has turned into one of the best signal callers in the Big East. As a junior, Nassib completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 2,685 yards and 22 touchdowns against just 9 interceptions.
Nassib should have plenty of time to throw thanks to the talent the Orange have on the offensive line. All-Big East left tackle Justin Pugh is the biggest name, but Zack Chilbane and Macky MacPherson are also talented.
Nassib will also be throwing to his favorite receiver from last year in Alec Lemon. The senior is a talented possession receiver who set a school record with 68 receptions last season, for 834 yards and six touchdowns.
From there the Syracuse offense takes a drop off with very little returning in the rest of the skill positions. Jerome Smith will replace 1,000-yard rusher Antwon Bailey after rushing for 134 yards last season and Marcus Sales will step in on the other side of Lemon after being suspended last season.
Other than the loss of defensive end Chandler Jones to the NFL, Syracuse's defense is largely intact. Head coach Doug Marrone hopes that experience will help the unit improve on last season's 64th ranked defense.
After missing spring practice while recovering from back surgery, 2011 Second- Team All-Big East linebacker Marquis Spruill appears to be ready for Syracuse's first game. That is great news as Spruill is just one of a number of talented linebackers for the Orange. Dan Vaughan is the lead returning tackler (72) and Dyshawn Davis is also in the mix. Davis led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss in 2011.
Brandon Sharpe has the unenviable task of replacing Jones up front, but the senior has four years under his belt and recorded 19 total tackles in limited time last season. Returning starters Jay Bromley and Deon Goggins will have to step up to allow Sharpe to develop.
Syracuse was weakest against the pass last season, allowing 258.3 yards per game, and will need the secondary to improve this season. Safety Shamarko Thomas was third on the team with 67 total tackles but the rest of the unit needs to improve.
Both of these squads are on the bottom looking up in their respective conferences. Similarly both would like nothing more than to get the 2012 season off to a good start with a non-conference win.
Fitzgerald is 19-5 at Northwestern in non-conference games but has a great deal of upheaval on his roster. Syracuse meanwhile, has remained steady from last season and with Nassib leading the offense, should end Fitzgerald's season0- opening win streak.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Syracuse 20, Northwestern 10
08/31 10:31:44 ET