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Today at No. 81: NORTHWESTERN Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (60-53, entering 10th season at school; 60-53 overall) 2014 record: 5-7, 3-5 in the Big Ten;...

college football lock pickToday at No. 81: NORTHWESTERN

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (60-53, entering 10th season at school; 60-53 overall)

2014 record: 5-7, 3-5 in the Big Ten; tied for fifth in West Division

Look back: Back-to-back losses to open the season — the first comparable debut stumble in a decade — showcased Northwestern’s reasons for concern in 2014. Injuries and inconsistent play, especially on the offensive side of the ball, would haunt the team much of last season. Even wins over Penn State and Wisconsin seemed mirages, especially as the Wildcats suffered through a four-game losing streak at midseason. A loss to Illinois in the regular-season finale knocked the team out of bowl contention for the second straight season.

Offensive starters returning: 6

Offensive starters lost: 5

Defensive starters returning: 8

Defensive starters lost: 3

Key losses: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Kyle Prater, WR Tony Jones, OL Paul Jorgensen, OL Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell, LB Jimmy Hall

Top returnees: RB Justin Jackson, OL Matt Frazier, OL Geoff Mogus, OL Eric Olson, WR Cameron Dickerson, WR Dan Vitale, S Traveon Henry, CB Matthew Harris, CB Nick VanHoose

Strengths: Northwestern enjoys a wealth of depth on a defense that ranked among the top 50 in total defense in the country last season. The group includes nine upperclassmen led by senior safety Traveon Henry and senior cornerback Nick VanHoose. The duo were among the leaders in tackles last season with a combined 132 total stops despite only playing 10 games apiece. Matthew Harris (70 tackles) mans the other corner and Godwin Igwebuike (3 interceptions) is next to Henry at safety. The line features three returning starters in Deonte Gibson, Greg Kuhar and Dean Lowry, who led the team with four sacks in 2014.

Justin Jackson became just the second freshman in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards, racking up 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014. Northwestern will lean on him early as the offense works to develop a new quarterback. But Jackson will have some help as wide receiver Christian Jones returns to the lineup after missing the 2014 season due to a knee injury. The talented receiver led the team with 54 catches and 668 yards in 2013 and is expected to be a threat on the outside.

Weaknesses: Offensively, Northwestern has gone through a bit of a slide during the past few seasons. The Wildcats went from averaging more than 30 points per game in 2012 to just over 23 in 2014 while the offense produced just over 353 yards per game.

Trevor Siemian’s departures opens the door to a competition at quarterback, with senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson all in the mix. The winner of the QB battle must help improve an offense that ranked 12th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency in 2014 while completing just 53 percent of its passes.

Matt Frazier, Geoff Mogus and Eric Olson return to anchor an offensive line that was one of the most dependable in the Big Ten last season. Only six players saw action in 2014 and finding replacements for longtime center Brandon Vitabile (50 career starts) and tackle Paul Jorgensen (25) will be crucial during the offseason.

Outlook: Northwestern is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time under Pat Fitzgerald and there’s pressure mounting to get back to the winning ways of 2012. The injuries that limited the team last season and forced young players into the lineup will provide much needed depth in 2015. The competition at quarterback could be the most important decision this offseason, especially with a schedule that features tough games against Stanford, Duke, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

2015 SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Stanford

Sept. 12 Eastern Illinois

Sept. 19 at Duke

Sept. 26 Ball State

Oct. 3 Minnesota

Oct. 10 at Michigan

Oct. 17 Iowa

Oct 24 at Nebraska

Nov. 7 Penn State

Nov. 14 Purdue

Nov. 21 at Wisconsin

Nov. 28 at Illinois

Vincent Rizzo

College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com

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