Northwestern takes a more athletic but less experienced team to the Carrier Dome on Saturday to take on Syracuse in the 2012 season opener.
What will happen to the Wildcats in the hot-and-humid cauldron that, ironically, is named for an air conditioning company? Will Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald keep his perfect 6-0 record in openers intact? Or will Syracuse pull off a repeat of the last time the Wildcats went to upstate New York, in 2009, when the Orange kicked a last-second field goal to break the Wildcats' hearts?
No one really knows -- except for WildcatReport's (occasionally on) crack staff, of course. Here's the way we see things going in Saturday's lid lifter (11 a.m. CT, ESPN2).
George "The Hungarian Rifle" Stoichev
Northwestern wins if… The defense manages to get some sort of consistent pressure so that Ryan Nassib isn't just calling his shots in the pocket. Hurried quarterbacks make bad decisions. As can be seen by the results, NU hasn't hurried anyone consistently in a long time.
Northwestern loses if… They are the same team as they were last year and have the added burden of inexperience on both sides of the ball. If the defense has improved, then the Cats can weather a few mental errors. If not, they'll be 0-1 this week.
Prediction: Northwestern 23 Syracuse 21. Both offenses struggle finishing drives, NU ends up pulling it out.
Bonus question: Who will be the Cats' leading rusher? Tony Jones. NU will run a reverse in the second quarter on its 1-yard line, and Jones will go 99 yards for the touchdown. Ok, probably Kain Colter.
Alex "Don't Call Me Bruce" Wayne
Northwestern wins if… The defense shows signs of life. A preseason message that the coaching staff has repeated is that Ibraheim Campbell improved by leaps and bounds last year to be the cornerstone for the secondary this year. Also, that Nick VanHoose is ready for his close-up as a cornerback. Not allowing big play touchdowns will go a long way to making sure Northwestern has a fighting chance every week.
Northwestern loses if… The passing game isn't ready to rock. Even with Ebert, Dunsmore and Persa gone, the passing game has an experienced, mobile QB in Colter, and plenty of depth among eligible receivers. Dropped passes, miscommunications on routes and untimely sacks will leave the offense with little to intimidate the opposition.
Prediction: Syracuse 31, Northwestern 28. I think special teams could factor into this one. Prove me wrong, Jeff Budzien, prove me wrong...
Bonus question: Who will be the Cats' leading rusher? By default, Colter. Each of the Wildcats prospective feature running backs will get a chance, but Syracuse probably isn't worried about that. I expect Syracuse to refuse Northwestern's passing game to dictate the outcome, hence Colter will have a lot of plays where his best decision is to tuck the ball under his arm and scramble. And the way he can scramble, that might not be a bad deal. Remember, Northwestern didn't throw a single pass on their game-winning drive against Nebraska last year.
Matt "Mr. Lacrosse" Forman
Northwestern wins if… It can weather the storm. Nothing goes according to plan in openers, and Fitzgerald has said as much. There will be adversity. It will be hot. Plays just need to be made.
Northwestern loses if… There's no pass rush on Nassib. With three new starters, Northwestern's secondary will take some time to settle in. If there's no pressure at the point of attack forcing Nassib to get rid of the ball quickly, he's an effective field general who spreads the ball around and picks apart defenses. (He was doing the same thing five years ago when I announced the Malvern Prep football games.)
Prediction: Northwestern 31, Syracuse 28
Bonus question: Who will be the Cats' leading rusher? Mike Trumpy. He'll get the lion's share of carries once he's fully healthy.
Larry "J.C." Watts
Northwestern wins if… The improved speed on defense results in pressure on the quarterback and the cornerbacks show a drastic improvement in coverage. Offensively, the Cats must establish a run game while Colter uses the short-passing game to control the clock.
Northwestern loses if… The youth movement yields too many mistakes and the Cats are unable to contain Nassib, which will then open holes for the Orange running game.
Prediction: The Carrier Dome has not been a pleasant place for the Wildcats to visit. Look for Fitz to absorb his first loss in a season opener. Syracuse 33 Northwestern 17.
Bonus question: Who will be the Cats' leading rusher? Provided Northwestern is not doing another Persa cover-up on the injury front, I'm going with Trumpy based on his ability to run between tackles as well as break to the outside.
Louie "Big Ern" Vaccher
Northwestern wins if… They packed a pass rush for the trip to upstate New York. The Cats produced a Big Ten-low 17 sacks last season and pressure on Saturday will be essential to cover for an inexperienced secondary.
Northwestern loses if… The 2012 defense does an impression of the 2011 defense and gives up a few big plays over the top.
Prediction: Fitz has been perfect in openers so far and wants to erase the memory of the last time Northwestern visited the Carrier Dome. The Cats might be a little better than people think they are. Northwestern 27 Syracuse 23.
Bonus question: Who will be the Cats' leading rusher? I have to go with Colter. Look for a lot of zone-read option, and the best option for No. 2 is usually pulling the ball back and running.