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College Football Countdown: No. 44 Northwestern

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 44: Northwestern

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (40-36, seventh season)

2011 record: 6-7 (3-5 in Big Ten Conference, fifth in Legends Division)

Look back: The Wildcats have enjoyed a certain amount of success on the gridiron under Fitzgerald however the program did suffer its first losing season since 2006 (4-8) – the first under the 37-year-old coach. Four straight bowl appearances are a plus as well and with a talented roster, this team could make it five in a row.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 6/5

Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/6

Key losses: QB Dan Persa, RB Jacob Schmidt, WR Jeremy Ebert, S Brian Peters, DB Jeravin Matthews

Top returnees: QB Kain Colter, WR Demetrius Fields, S Ibraheim Campbell, LB David Nwabuisi, K Jeff Budzien

Strengths: While no coach wants to lose a key player like Dan Persa, his limited role last season opened the door for talented quarterback Kain Colter to emerge and get some much-needed experience. The junior was an everyman for the Wildcats, leading the team in rushing with 654 yards while passing for 673 yards and receiving another 466 yards. He finished the season with 18 total touchdowns and was a key factor in Northwestern’s offensive success. Now, he gets to show off just what he can do leading the team in its explosive spread offense. … Receiver has always been key in Northwestern’s offense and with the departure of Jeremy Ebert (1,060 yards, 11 TDs) the team will need senior Demetrius Fields to step up. He was fourth on the team with 382 yards last season.

Weaknesses: While you can expect Colter to continue his dominance on the ground, Northwestern needs to find a running back who can provide some tough yards and be a threat out of the backfield. Jacob Schmidt was that guy last season but he’s gone which puts the pressure on more inexperienced guys like Mike Trumpy, Treyvon Green and Malin Jones to produce. … The defense was not very good last season, finishing next to last in the Big Ten in total defense. Safety Ibraheim Campbell was the team’s leading tackler last season (100 tackles) and will be counted on to anchor a unit that lacks experience. Getting to the opposing quarterback will be key – the Wildcats had only 17 sacks last season – and that job falls on defensive linemen Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams.

Outlook: Colter is one of those special type of players and his development will be crucial for Northwestern’s success on offense. Fitzgerald and his staff need to develop a quarterback and fill some holes on the offensive line for Colter to have success. The addition of wide receiver Kyle Prater, who is waiting to hear from the NCAA on whether or not he can play this season after transferring from USC, would be huge for this team. The defense returns six starters from last year’s squad but that may not be that big of a blessing. The line needs to get penetration and disrupt opposing quarterbacks to help take the pressure off a young, inexperienced secondary. Early on, the schedule appears favorable before finishing out the season with big games against Nebraska and Iowa at home and road games against Michigan and Michigan State.

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 at Syracuse

Sept. 8 Vanderbilt

Sept. 15 Boston College

Sept. 22 South Dakota

Sept. 29 Indiana

Oct. 6 at Penn State

Oct. 13 at Minnesota

Oct. 20 Nebraska

Oct. 27 Iowa

Nov. 10 at Michigan

Nov. 17 at Michigan State

Nov. 24 Illinois

Rest of the countdown:
No. 45 Miami
No. 46 Southern Miss
No. 47 USF 
No. 48 North Carolina
No. 49 Illinois
No. 50 Tulsa
No. 51 California
No. 52 UCF
No. 53 Pittsburgh
No. 54 Arizona
No. 55 BYU 
No. 56 Ohio

No. 57 Temple

No. 58 Purdue

No. 59 Arkansas State

No. 60 Vanderbilt

No. 61 Connecticut

No. 62 Arizona State

No. 63 Wyoming

No. 64 Northern Illinois

No. 65 Utah State

No. 66 Louisiana-Lafayette

No. 67 Marshall

No. 68 Western Michigan

No. 69 Louisiana Tech

No. 70 Kentucky

No. 71 Air Force

No. 72 Western Kentucky

No. 73 UCLA

No. 74 Toledo

No. 75 FIU

No. 76 San Jose State

No. 77 North Texas

No. 78 Iowa State

No. 79 Nevada

No. 80 Eastern Michigan

No. 81 Hawai’i

No. 82 East Carolina

No. 83 Texas Tech

No. 84 Washington State

No. 85 San Diego State

No. 86 Ball State

No. 87 Navy

No. 88 Tennessee

No. 89 Kent State

No. 90 Louisiana-Monroe

No. 91 Bowling Green

No. 92 Syracuse

No. 93 Minnesota

No. 94 Boston College

No. 95 Kansas

No. 96 Oregon State

No. 97 Rice

No. 98 Ole Miss

No. 99 Colorado

No. 100 New Mexico State

No. 101 Duke

No. 102 Idaho

No. 103 Army

No. 104 Maryland

No. 105 Colorado State

No. 106 Miami (Ohio)

No. 107 UTEP

No. 108 Troy

No. 109 Fresno State

No. 110 Central Michigan

No. 111 Indiana

No. 112 Memphis

No. 113 Middle Tennessee

No. 114 UAB

No. 115 Buffalo

No. 116 Tulane

No. 117: FAU

No. 118: UNLV

No. 119: Akron

No. 120: New Mexico

Follow me on Twitter: osmattmurschel

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