Steele's signs pointing up in Evanston

Louie Vaccher, Publisher
Wildcat Report

USA Today Sports Images

Pat Fitzgerald has accomplished a lot during his 11 years as head coach at Northwestern. He is already the school’s all-time wins leader with 77, he owns two of the three bowl wins in history, and he has coached the Wildcats to two 10-win seasons, one half of the four the program has experienced in 123 seasons of football.

One thing that Fitzgerald has not done, however, is win a Big Ten title – either division or conference. The truth is he hasn’t really come close, while his two predecessors in Evanston, former coach Gary Barnett (two titles) and former boss Randy Walker (one), each brought home some hardware.

This could be the year that Fitzgerald finally breaks through with a team that should be in the hunt for a West division title.

Why? WildcatReport takes a look at four key indicators that are pointing up in Evanston, according to Phil Steele’s 2017 college football preview magazine. There are dozens of preseason publications out there, of course, but we’ll rely on maybe the most respected one out there for this story.

Experience: If Northwestern was a cuisine it would be Cajun, because this is one well-seasoned team. The Wildcats rank 17th in the nation in Phil Steele’s NCAA Experience chart. That’s second-best in the Big Ten, behind only Penn State, which ranks 12th. Of the 16 returning Wildcat starters (including punter Hunter Niswander but excluding defensive end Xavier Washington), 10 of them are seniors. Three-quarters of the secondary (Keith Watkins, Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro) are in their final years in Evanston.

Schedule: Steele rated Northwestern’s 2016 schedule the 13th-toughest in the nation. This year, it’s considerably easier and the Wildcats pull in at No. 61. Only two of the Wildcats’ opponents this season are ranked (Penn State and Wisconsin), and together their foes have a winning percentage of .500. That’s why Steele has Northwestern No. 2 nationally (tied with Ohio State and behind Wisconsin) on his list of teams that have an 81 percent chance of winning the same number or more games this season.

Unit Rankings: Steele is bullish on Northwestern’s talent at several different position groups. He ranks the Wildcats second in the Big Ten at running back and defensive back, third at quarterback, and fifth at receiver, defensive line and coach. Only two groups rank in the double-digits: linebacker (an understandable but misguided ranking) and special teams. Steele even ranks the Wildcats’ much-maligned offensive line a decent-and-better-than-expected eighth in the league.

Rankings: All of the above wouldn’t add up to much if Steele didn’t think Northwestern would win. But he does. Northwestern comes in at No. 28 nationally, which is fifth-best in the Big Ten. More importantly, the Wildcats are ranked behind only Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. Northwestern will get its shot at the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, on Sept. 30, with both teams coming off of a bye week. Steele said it best: “This team is a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West.” We concur.

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