Memorial Day has passed and the unofficial countdown to college football is underway. For the die-hard college football fan, Sept. 1 cannot come soon enough. In many ways, this is the eye of the hurricane. The spring semester just wrapped up and the student-athletes have some downtime before summer practices kick off.
This is also the time of year when coaches and athletic directors have to be biting their fingernails and hoping their players are staying out of trouble and out of the back of a police car.
One college that usually does not have to worry about that type of behavior on their campus or from their team is Northwestern University. Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald has done a fine job in the six years on the job after taking over in the wake of the sudden passing of Randy Walker.
Fitzgerald carries a 40-36 career record at the university in Evanston and is coming off a season in which the ‘Cats went 7-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten).
Still one of the youngest coaches in the NCAA at 37, Fitzgerald has led his alma mater to four straight bowl appearances. However, they were defeats for the school, which is still searching for the Wildcats’ first bowl win since the Rose Bowl in 1948.
Around this time last year, the Northwestern athletic department was touting senior quarterback Dan Persa as a Heisman contender. In fact, Heisman voters received seven-pound purple dumbbells in the mail signifying the number seven Persa wears on his jersey and the fact he is pound for pound one of the game’s best at his position.
Furthermore, a billboard soared over the Kennedy expressway in Chicago with the depiction of Persa and the caption “Chicago’s Heisman Candidate” with a website, www.persastrong.com, where fans could learn more about the NU signal-caller.
After a senior season marred by injuries, Persa has since graduated and last year’s jack-of-all-trades, Kain Kolter, will take the snaps for the ‘Cats in what appears to be a transitional year.
The ‘Cats are projected to return only 12 starters to a team that lost the aforementioned Persa as well as starting RB Jacob Schmidt to graduation and top WR Jeremy Ebert and TE Drake Dunsmore to the National Football League. The absence of reliable offensive playmakers will hurt, and the onus will be on the ninth-ranked defense in the Big Ten to improve until the offense gets their feet wet.
Fitzgerald and his staff will have to find the next wave of Wildcats to insert into the lineup to have a shot at a fifth consecutive bowl trip. The schedule will not offer much relief either, with a challenging non-conference schedule that includes the road opener at Syracuse before returning home to upstart Vanderbilt and Boston College.
Northwestern catches a slight break with their conference schedule as Ohio State and Wisconsin are not on the docket this season, but trips to Michigan and Michigan State loom large for a team void of senior leadership.
Depending on how quickly Kolter and the rest of the Northwestern offense replaces the departed seniors, it may very well be a rough start to the season and will only get more difficult in conference play.
My early prediction: 4-8.
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Patrick is a diehard Chicago sports fan and an avid college football fan, particularly the SEC. Patrick is the host of “The Wake-up Call,” a weekly sports show on Sportstownchicago.com every Wednesday morning from 8-10. View his show’s website here. And read more of Patrick’s blogs here.