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MnB B1G Preview: The Biggest Storylines Surrounding Northwestern football

In this installment of the Maize n' Brew Big Ten Preview series, we take a look at Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and what the program's biggest storylines are going into 2014.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports
How much will the CAPA union affect the football season?

If you Google "Northwestern Pat Fitzgerald" right now, 99% of the results that come up are related to the recent attempts by former Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter to unionize the football players. Football has really taken a back seat to this whole story, and it has brought a lot of new attention to the Northwestern football program, but not in a good way. Colter's proposed union, the College Athletes Players Association, has quickly become the focal point of the debate surrounding the question of whether players should be paid in addition to their scholarship benefits. Fitzgerald himself is against a union, saying that players shouldn't need a third party to represent their interests and that he has adequately represented them in the past. Many former Northwestern players, most notably former quarterback Dan Persa, have also been vocal against the union.

Players voted regarding the union on April 25 (almost an entire month ago), but we will likely not know the results until Northwestern's appeal process runs its course. If the vote by the players was to not form a union, we possibly might not ever hear about the results. Fitzgerald said he will not step down if the union is formed.

Of course, regarding this preview, the question isn't so much about the players voting "yes" or "no" on forming a union, it's more about how much this off-season story will affect the football season. There is very little doubt that Colter's unionization effort is the big headliner about Northwestern athletics, while there seems to be very little buzz about Northwestern's spring practice and who the impact players are and whatnot. This could potentially become an issue that weighs heavy on both the players and coaches and serves as a distraction throughout the season, which of course doesn't help Northwestern's chances of winning the Big Ten championship or returning to bowl eligibility.

Can Northwestern return to 2012 form?

Pat Fitzgerald's program finally had its breakout season in 2012 where they went 10-3 and won the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State, Northwestern's first bowl victory in over 60 years. In 2013, when all the sportswriter and commentator folk were considering Northwestern to be a dark horse contender for the Legends Division -- heck, even I speculated that their upcoming offense that year would be borderline unstoppable -- the Wildcats instead stumbled to a 5-7 season after starting 4-0 and missed a chance to go bowling for the sixth straight year. It was not fun.

What led to the backslide? Honestly, when I look at Northwestern in 2013, I don't see a team that was simply listless or incompetent. I see a team that just had a ridiculous string of bad luck. First, Venric Mark, one of their biggest playmakers, sat out pretty much the entire season thanks to injury. Second, Kain Colter missed action against Wisconsin and Minnesota. Third, they had a series of late-game meltdowns which led to heartbreaking losses. The Wildcats lost close games against Iowa (OT), Nebraska, and yes, even us, in overtime. Any one of these games slides in Northwestern's favor and the Wildcats go to the Pizza Bowl at worst. In hindsight, the Purple Pats might not have ever had a legitimate shot at the Big Ten championship with Michigan State's defense slapping everybody around and Ohio State steamrolling their way through another undefeated regular season, but I think Northwestern was better than their 5-7 record indicated.

How much better? We'll find out. The good news for Northwestern is that a great deal of their team is returning. They don't lose any starters on the offensive line, wide receivers Kyle Prater (formerly of USC) and Miles Shuler (formerly of Rutgers) get a chance to make an impact, and Venric Mark should be back in the fold, too. Admittedly, they do lose Kain Colter, who is kind of busy with other things at the moment, but they still have Trevor Siemian, whom they'll be counting on to make the offense go. (More on that in a bit.) There are some concerns, though, and the biggest question mark according to 247Sports' Dan Murphy (a Notre Dame beat writer) is the defensive line, especially since their potential star, Ifeadi Odenigbo, missed spring practice. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are expected to have a solid defensive backfield, with four returning starters in the unit returning, so if they can work out their weak points by Big Ten play there's little reason to doubt they'll get back some good karma.

Can Trevor Siemian lead the offense on his own?

So one of the biggest aspects that made Northwestern's glorious 2012 run so successful -- namely the quarterback tandem between Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian -- is now gone with Colter's departure. That pretty much leaves Siemian in complete control of the offense. Can he handle it?

There are essentially two answers to this question, or to put it another way, two different perspectives. On one hand, there is the camp that looks at Siemian's command of the offense when Colter was out -- most notably against Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan State, all of which resulted in losses -- and feels very skeptical about his ability to lead the team. Siemian had an average completion percentage of 68% during the first five games, including the close bout against Ohio State, but that quickly turned downward like the rest of the Wildcats' season and he finished with an overall completion percentage of 59.8%. Couple that with the very different skillset that Siemian brings and you know Northwestern with him is going to be more pass-oriented. When tasked with more pass attempts, will Siemian reflect more the early part of the 2013 season or the later part?

Murphy and Teddy Greenstein basically sum up the dichotomy with this exchange:

Colter was a uniquely versatile athlete for the Wildcats offense. He created problems for opposing defenses when lined up at quarterback and when split out at wide receiver with Siemian in the game. He created 1,066 all-purpose yards last season despite missing time with injuries.

"He was in and out of the lineup last year," Greenstein said. "When he was healthy he was absolutely dynamic. You take away Colter and Siemian is basically a true dropback guy. You wonder if that offense is going to look like it did."

Understandably, there's the other camp that believes that Sieman should be able to do fine with Venric Mark back in tow, as well as the possibility for young quarterback Matt Alviti -- who is just coming off a redshirt -- to contribute and bring a bit of the dual-threat ability similar to Dan Persa. One key aspect that contributed to the Wildcats' 2012 success was the coaching staff having figured out what pieces worked and that all those pieces had worked together cohesively. If Siemian and Mark can make it work (and if Alviti can fill Colter's role), it's not too far fetched to be at least cautiously optimistic.

Personally, I'm fascinated by what Siemian could do for Northwestern. For most if not all of Fitzgerald's tenure as the head coach in Evanston, the Wildcats have depended on an option quarterback to take a lot of the pressure off the offense. In this way you could say Northwestern was at least somewhat similar to one of the service academies -- making up for lack of star-power with schematic gimmicks. When was the last time Northwestern produced a legitimate NFL quarterback? Siemian fits the mold, and though he might operate in less of a pro-style offense in college, recent draftees like Blake Bortles, Brandon Weeden, Nick Foles, and Blaine Gabbert have shown that even quarterbacks in passing spreads can still be considered worthy of the NFL.

Can the Wildcats get their bowl streak back on track?

I'm not wholly encouraged by Northwestern's schedule. In one aspect, the Wildcats open 2014 with three contests all at Ryan Field, with a bye week in between games two and three. It doesn't seem all that unreasonable to suggest that the `Cats would be 3-0 -- possibly 2-1 if they blow the opener against Cal. However, Northwestern's Big Ten opening slate is brutal. They visit Penn State (historically, not a great way to start), face Minnesota at home, Wisconsin on the road, and then Nebraska at Ryan Field for homecoming. All four of those games could be losses. That, of course, would put the Wildcats in a hole similar to the one they faced last season.

Their next slate of games features Iowa on the road, Michigan at home, and Notre Dame in South Bend, a rare occurrence of facing a tough non-conference opponent late in the season. Again, another stretch of games where Northwestern could lose all three. The final pair of bouts against Purdue and Illinois are the schedule's only reprieve, saving the most manageable for last. Basically, if the Wildcats go to Ross-Ade Stadium with at least four wins, they'll have a chance to go bowling. Their last game against Illinois, at home, should be vindicating for Pat Fitzgerald, as it has been for the past two seasons.

Last season, Northwestern was better (strictly on paper) than Minnesota, Purdue, and Illinois, the three teams they have the most possible chances of winning against this season. Of course, Northwestern wasn't as good last season as they were predicted to be. So can we really say that those games are where Northwestern looks like it will get to six wins? And, for that matter, is Michigan untouchable here? In our last two games against the Wildcats, we won a generally hard-fought battle late in the fourth quarter, much to the chagrin of Northwestern fans. You have to think that if Michigan keeps playing inconsistently, one of these times Northwestern is going to capitalize.

Obviously, as noted earlier, this assumes that the `Cats can make it through the season without the distraction of Colter's unionization effort weighing on their minds. It has been the primary distraction of the off-season and spring practice, and it seems like a lot to presume that it's just going to go away by the time the Wildcats open against Cal. Should Fitzgerald's players fail to gel as a unit as a result (a very real possibility), it doesn't take much for the wheels to fall off the bus for the second year in a row. I don't know what the 2014 season has in store for Northwestern, and I undoubtedly wish them success and improvement, but I don't envy their position right now. There's just too much weighing them down: trying to get back to a bowl, trying to prove 2012 wasn't a fluke, hoping Siemian can operate without Colter as a fallback option, and then trying to not be cast in a negative light as Colter pursues a union for the players. There's the old saying "Football season can't come soon enough," but when it comes to what Northwestern is going through, kickoff might not be enough to erase the Wildcats' worries.