Commentary: Preseason Prediction for 2012
by Jonathan Hodges

Well the countdown is on for the 2012 season and you may have noticed that I have not posted much content at HTP. Unfortunately, life has finally begun to catch up with me and in addition to being out of the country and offline for two weeks in mid-August, between work and home responsibilities I will no longer have enough time to write the most thorough analyses of Northwestern football on the internet. Fortunately for those craving NU football content online, there are now a plethora of news sources and blogs to follow so one will not be starving for reading material. I do plan to post shorter predictions leading up to each game as well as a quick analysis following the game along with a commentary here or there as well. Finally, I'll also continue to be on Twitter and Facebook and feel free to contact me at either of those places or via e-mail.

Now, on to my seventh annual Northwestern preseason prediction.

Well, actually let's review my track record on preseason predictions over the prior six years (coinciding with Fitz's tenure as NU's head coach). On an individual basis, my picks have been 70.8% accurate (51-21); last year I went 8-4 on my preseason picks. Over that six year span I predicted the 'Cats to have a 45-27 record, while NU actually has a 40-32 record, so I'm within 7% of the 'Cats' actual winning rate. Although I try to be balanced in my predictions and analysis, apparently I am lean slightly towards the optimistic side (but not too much).

Now, the predictions, along with my personal level of confidence in a Northwestern win, ranging from 0 (sure loss), to 5 (toss-up), to 10 (sure win). I'll provide a brief explanation to justify each one since I didn't do a thorough schedule breakdown.

@ Syracuse: 6, W
A tough game but NU is set on offense and will be looking to avenge that tough loss in 2009 and will do so with a slew of points.
vs. Vanderbilt: 4, L
Vandy may be NU's toughest test until late October and will likely get yet another night game spoiled.
vs. Boston College: 7, W
BC has a few weapons but as we saw down the stretch last year they seem to be a regressing team under their current regime.
vs. South Dakota (FCS): 9, W
A medicore FCS team should prove to be no real threat to NU this season.
vs. Indiana: 8, W
Indiana has a ton of freshmen and they will still be young as they have to hit the road to face NU who dropped 59 on them last season.
@ Penn State: 6, W
PSU lost a ton of key players and the 'Cats should have enough offense to pull off Fitz's first win over this team.
@ Minnesota: 6, W
This has the makings of a trap game for NU, though Minny's weak D should allow the 'Cats to pull out a challenging road win.
vs. Nebraska: 3, L
Now comes the tough stretch, and Nebraska with their invading fans will certainly want to get payback, and they have the talent to do so.
vs. Iowa: 5, L
A toss-up game given NU's recent history vs. the Hawkeyes, although they likely have too much in the passing game against a still inexperienced NU secondary.
@ Michigan: 2, L
Now comes the real tough games following NU's bye week: a trip to the big house to face a team that will likely be contending for a division crown.
@ Michigan State: 2, L
Follow that by facing what should be one of the toughest defenses in the nation, and the offense will certainly have their feet under them by this point.
vs. Illinois: 5, W
The rivalry game heads back to Evanston for the first time since 2008, and although Illinois will be tough, look for NU to use the home field to bring the Land of Lincoln trophy back to NU.

Predicted Record: 7-5 (4-4)

I feel somewhat cheap by following the crowd of others who have also predicted a 7-5 record for Northwestern this season, but given the level of experience and the tough back end of the schedule it seems to be the most likely outcome. Fortunately, college football is wacky and one never knows what will happen, and the upgraded recruiting talent we've been hearing so much about may finally help propel NU to eight or nine wins, which is entire possible with wins in potentially close games at home against the likes of Vanderbilt and Iowa. But 9 wins seems to be the ceiling for this club with Nebraska, Michigan, and MSU likely holding down the front of the Legends Division standings.

In terms of performance of NU's units, the offense should continue to improve with QB Kain Colter having already proven himself last season and the fact that he is surrounded by talented skill players, particularly at receiver. Although the offensive line continues to be questionable, his speed should allow him to get out of trouble. On defense, the team is too young to get a good read. It helps that NU's schedule is back-loaded so that they can hopefully gain experience early on while still winning games which will give them a fighting chance later. The secondary is a big unknown with three new starters, while the defensive front certainly needs to create more havoc in the backfield, otherwise NU fans could be facing deja vu from opponents' passing games. Finally, special teams are essentially all set, although it will be interesting to see how Fitz approaches the new kickoff rules.

Predicted Trip to Big Ten Championship? No

As stated above, Michigan and MSU are the front-runners for the division crown, and Nebraska will likely have a say in the matter. NU is too inexperienced, particularly on defense, to challenge this year. Their only realistic hope is that the front runners all knock each other off while the 'Cats win all of the toss-up games and steal an upset against one of them to tie and maybe earn a trip via tiebreakers.

Predicted Bowl: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (formerly known as Insight)

I have to pat myself on the back for correctly predicting a trip to the Texas Bowl last year (although a strange set of circumstances involving PSU certainly led to that result). This year I believe that seven wins will be enough for NU to get a trip to Phoenix thanks to two Big Ten teams being ineligible for the postseason (PSU and OSU) who would otherwise likely be bowl bound. Also note that the Gator Bowl will pick ahead of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl this season, so this will in effect be the fifth pick; sixth if the Big Ten gets a second team into the BCS (which they likely will given the fact that they have done so more than any other conference).

Note that it will be imperative for the Wildcats to rack up as many Ws early in the season as possible given that the back have of the slate is so difficult. But, I have NU pegged for the 7-9 win range given the relatively easy early schedule, which should allow them to reach bowl eligibility before the tough stretch of the schedule, much like 2008 & 2010. Now, time to sit back and enjoy the ride (though NU fans should always keep the heart medication handy).

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.