Included among their 10 wins were two against SEC bowl teams (Vanderbilt, Mississippi State). However, only a few key plays separated Northwestern from an undefeated season. The three losses came on the road against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, and the Wildcats held fourth-quarter leads in each of those contests.
Still, the team has plenty to build on entering a promising 2013 campaign. After all, NU went bowling for the fifth straight season and finally snapped a drought of nine straight postseason losses with a 34-20 triumph over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
"We're not satisfied with just going to Bowl games anymore," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Day. "That's not acceptable. That's the expectation. And to be a consistent winner, to be a consistent postseason team and playing in bowl games is the expectation. Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a (bowl) game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day the expectation is to win championships."
OFFENSE: The coaching staff split reps at quarterback between the athletic Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, a more traditional pocket passer. Coach Fitzgerald likes to deploy packages where both are on the field at the same time, but Colter's numbers may warrant full-time duty under center.
In addition to running for 891 yards and 12 touchdowns, Colter also beat out Siemian in completion percentage (67.8 to 58.7) and efficiency rating (129.3 to 115.6).
Venric Mark converted from slot receiver to running back last season, and all he did was go on to rush for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns, becoming the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006.
Along with Mark, NU returns five of its top six receivers, and that doesn't include former USC five-star recruit Kyle Prater. Sophomore H-back Dan Vitale came on strong at the end of the year and figures to be more involved. While virtually all of the skill players are back, the offensive line must replace three starters, two of which were all-conference selections.
DEFENSE: The defense returns seven starters. Up front, defensive end Tyler Scott returns for his senior season after racking up a team-best 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks.
NU is a bit thin in the middle, which is always a concern at the point of attack. However, there are no such concerns at linebacker, where senior leader Damien Proby is coming off a 112-tackle campaign. He is flanked by junior Chi Chi Ariguzo, who emerged as a playmaker with 91 tackles (10.5 TFL), two interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
In the secondary, junior strong safety Ibraheim Campbell followed up his freshman All-America season by recording 89 tackles and a team-high 12 pass breakups to go along with two picks. Cornerback Nick VanHoose notched seven pass breakups in 10 starts last year as a freshman. While there is some talent in the defensive backfield, the Wildcats had a few too many late breakdowns in pass coverage in their losses. The coaching staff believes that with a year under their belts, the defensive backs will be more consistent in 2013.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior Jeff Budzien last year became the first NU kicker to be named first-team All-Big Ten (coaches) since Brian Gowins in 1997. He converted 19-of-20 field goals, with the lone miss coming from outside of 50 yards. Although he has razor-sharp accuracy, Budzien does not have the strongest leg, as his longest field goal was 44 yards. Punter Brandon Williams also returns after averaging 39.9 yards and landing 21 kicks inside the opponent's 20.
OUTLOOK: By all indications, the Wildcats appear to be entering what could be a very special period in its program history. Now, they just have to go out and beat the top competition the Big Ten has to offer.
The schedule features Ohio State and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks, and the Wildcats also face Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State for three straight games. In addition, Fitzgerald cited the first two games at Cal and home against Syracuse as two more stiff challenges his team will face.
"We're very proud of the success we've had, five straight bowl seasons," Fitzgerald said. "But as I said as I put the Gator Bowl trophy up above my head, we're just getting started at Northwestern. We have a lot of work. Talk is talk, and now it's about time for action."
NU no doubt has the talent on offense, although the offensive line is a bit unproven. If the secondary can step up and stop some of those big plays, the Wildcats should be in position to challenge for the league crown.