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Big Ten Football Countdown: No.6 Northwestern

Can Northwestern win the Big Ten for the first time since 2000? They have the best opportunity to do so this season.

For much of the existence of the Big Ten, Northwestern has played a small role and usually is a door mat for Michigan or Ohio State. This year could be the complete opposite. The football culture at Northwestern has been completely revamped thanks to the tutelage of head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has taken Northwestern to five straight bowl and six straight seasons with a .500 or better winning percentage. The Wildcats were brilliant at running the ball last season, best for 19th in the nation with 225.5 rushing yards per game. A large cast of returning starters make the Wildcats more of a threat in the Big Ten. The only downside to this Wildcat team is their schedule, which features games at Wisconsin and Nebraska and at home against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Though, with all the returning talent and the excellent coaching staff, Northwestern can finally turn the tables and win the Big Ten outright for the first time since their Rose Bowl run in 1995.

2012 Record: 10-3 (5-3)

Returning Starters: 17 (7 OFF, 8 DEF, 2 ST)

Key Losses on Offense: G Brian Mulroe

Key Losses on Defense: DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams.

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald: 50-39 (8th Year)

Strength: Returning Talent

Northwestern is, arguably, the best team in the Big Ten to return to the most starters with 17 total. The offense won't miss a beat as seven offensive starters return including both quarterbacks Kain Colter (872 yds pass, 894 yds rush 20 TD) and Trevor Siemian (1312 yds. 6 TD). The running game should pick up where it left off as top RB Venric Mark (1366 yds. 12 TD) returns. The passing game was weak last season but should improve as Northwestern's top three receivers in Christian Jones (412 yds. 2 TD), Tony Jones (335 yds. 4 TD) and Rashad Lawrence (321 yds.) all return. The defense won't look to shabby either as Northwestern returns eight starters to a defense that allowed just 22.5 points a game. The Wildcats will be especially strong at linebacker as Chi Chi Ariguzo (91 TOT), Damien Proby (112 TOT) and Collin Ellis ( 9 TOT) all return.

Weakness/Questions: Offensive Line

Honestly I only put Offensive Line as a weakness because the only returning starters to the OL are LT Jack Konopka and C Brandon Vitabile. Other than that Northwestern is golden. The only real repercussion of a bad offensive line are sacks allowed and the inability to open up holes for running backs, but since Northwestern was 1st in sacks allowed in the Big Ten and 3rd in rushing in the Big Ten, I doubt the Wildcats are going to be too effected by this.

Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3)

Bowl Game: Texas Bowl