After a 10-3 2012 season, Northwestern began 2013 with high expectations. They have their highest regular season ranking since 2001 and have started 4-0 for the third time in four years.
The legends division is there for the taking. Although the stronger of the two divisions, and things appear now, Michigan in the only team that should threaten the Wildcats aspirations for the Big Ten title game. The Wildcats were 4:47 away from an undefeated season. A win against Nebraska would have meant a share of the legends division title with the Cornhuskers and Wolverines.
The Big Ten schedule is challenging, but Ohio State (Oct 5th) and Michigan (Nov. 16) come to Ryan Field. The toughest road games will be at Wisconsin (Oct 12) and Nebraska (Nov 11). Ohio State replaced Indiana from last year's schedule and Wisconsin replaced Penn St.
If the Wildcats can split with Ohio State and Michigan and go 5-1 in the other Big Ten games they will have a great chance at winding up in Indianapolis in December.
Entering the season one of the biggest questions was Northwestern's defense. The defense has been their strongest and most consistent unit so far. The Wildcats rank first nationally with ten interceptions and have returned four of those for touchdowns. They are also fourth nationally in turnovers forced. They are also tied for first in the Big Ten in turnover margin with the Buckeyes and Minnesota at plus four.
The Wildcats need to shore up their pass defense and cut down on turnovers. Although they are tied for first in Big Ten in turnover margin, their seven turnovers on offense are a concern. They've also been shredded through the air. NU ranks last in the Big Ten and 117th (out of 123) nationally in pass defense.
Ohio State's trip to Evanston marks the highest ranked team at Ryan Field since the top ranked Buckeyes thumped NU 54-10 in Pat Fitzgerald's first season in 2006. The Wildcats last win over a top ten team was at number nine Nebraska two seasons ago.
NU should get Venric Mark back according the the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein. Getting their all-american return man and last season's leading rusher back gives them another weapon in the backfield.
Quarterback Kain Colter was quoted in the same tribune article about Mark's return.
“Whenever you have ‘5’ back there, it makes my job a lot easier. When I can pitch the ball to Venric or get it to him in the flat, he’s going to make a guy miss and get some yards. He has a chance to take it the distance on every play. It will be great (to have him return).”
Treyvon Green has stepped up tremendously in Mark's absence. Green is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing with 101 yards per game.
Colter and Simien have given NU two reliable Quarterbacks. They rank fourth and fifth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency.
NU will have to play is best game of the season against the Buckeyes. With two weeks to prepare and Mark's return, it should be interesting to see how the Wildcats fare in front of a national television audience in prime time.