The Big Ten's 2014 Rose Bowl Sleeper? Try Northwestern

Adam JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterFebruary 27, 2013

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 06:  Kain Colter #2 of the Northwestern Wildcats celebrates after a ten yard touchdown run against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the game on October 6, 2012 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  The Nittany Lions defeated the Wildcats 39-28.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

When Northwestern takes the field for spring practice (and ultimately its spring game) in 2013, the team on that field will not be a Rose Bowl-caliber squad. It's going to struggle to do some things that other teams can do well, particularly on defense. There'll be some head-shaking moments, ones that assure fans, coaches and whoever else might be watching that that team won't be booking any trips to Pasadena.

And they'd be right. That team, the spring 2013 version of the Northwestern Wildcats, will not be good enough to win the Big Ten. The fall 2013 version, on the other hand, has a much better shot.

As reports, 13 of Northwestern's players—including three returning starters and several more potential 2013 starters—are out due to injury for the spring. Here's more:

The Wildcats announced Monday that three projected starters will miss the spring session with injuries: cornerback Nick VanHoose, middle linebacker Damien Proby and offensive tackle Jack Konopka. Several other players who filled reserve roles in 2012 but could claim starting jobs in 2013 also are out, including offensive tackle Paul Jorgensen, wide receiver Kyle Prater, defensive tackle Will Hampton, defensive end Deonte Gibson and guard Matt Frazier. 

All 13 players out for the spring are expected back for fall camp and the season. Most are recovering from postseason surgeries. 

VanHoose, Proby and Konopka are all serious All-Big Ten contenders in 2013. Gibson and Prater have that potential as well, though they've got further to go in terms of turning that potential into production. 

So again, Northwestern is going to be highly depleted during its spring session. But that's not entirely a negative. The Wildcats' record for the 2013 season is going to be 0-0 after the spring game no matter what, so while having the full complement of players healthy for the spring session is nice from a practice standpoint, it's not about to take the 'Cats out of contention for anything of import during the actual season.

Moreover, the absence of all these players—roughly a fifth of Northwestern's scholarship players who are currently on campus and eligible for the 2013 season—means Northwestern can work out lots of guys who otherwise wouldn't get nearly this much time with the first (or in some cases) second string and see how they work within the framework of the offense or defense.

This is not some idle thought process, either. Just last year, Gibson took advantage of starting DE Queintin Williams' spring absence and got in valuable spring work; Gibson would later parlay that into three spot starts in 2012, and he's a strong candidate to be Northwestern's next great rush end even with this spring off.

So this spring is going to find Northwestern where it prefers to be: under the radar. That'll probably continue into fall, even as the Wildcats are A) coming off a remarkable 10-3 season and B) returning 15 starters, including every single skill position starter on offense.

Why isn't Northwestern being taken more seriously as a Big Ten title contender, though? That's not a rhetorical question, because there are reasons. The passing situation with Kain Colter under center is still a bit of a liability. The Wildcat defense isn't very far removed from being one of the Big Ten's worst in 2011...and in 2010. And losing three starting offensive linemen is no picnic.

So yes, a serious Northwestern title run is predicated on things that, at this point, we don't know to be true.

We don't know if the Wildcat offensive line will be able to keep the Big Ten's stock of tough defensive lines off Colter and stud TB Venric Mark. We don't know if Colter can punish defenses that overload the box or if Trevor Siemian will have to pick up the slack in the passing game. We don't know if that defense can continue improving toward being one of the Big Ten's best.

But nearly every recent Big Ten title run has been predicated on proving spring question marks. Ohio State's offensive line was a major strength in 2012, but we didn't know that would be the case when Urban Meyer first took over. We knew Russell Wilson would be good for Wisconsin in 2011, but we didn't have any idea just how great he'd be. And his ascension to the top of the Big Ten's passing efficiency ranks paled in comparison to the shock of Scott Tolzien pulling it off for the Badgers in 2010. And so on and so on.

Of course, Northwestern is in the "sleeper" category (and not "outright contender") for a reason. The season opener against Ohio State may be in Evanston, but it's still a likely loss—and that leaves four more road games for the 'Cats to contend with en route to trying to take the Legends Division title and earn a trip to Indianapolis. And yep, Ohio State would probably be waiting there, too.

We are still talking about a team that won 10 games last season, however, and all three of those losses featured a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter for the Wildcats. This is a team that proved it could play with anyone last season, and the majority of that team's most important players are back. So a backslide doesn't seem all that likely, spring injuries or not.

Keep an eye on this team even through it's probably going to be a rough spring. Northwestern looks to have something going here, and after 2012, you shouldn't be surprised.