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Closing Arguments: Northwestern Wildcats

It can't get any worse, right?

Northwestern to take the stand.
Northwestern to take the stand.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, OTE. So. Anyone read any interesting Northwestern news last night? No? Splendid. Then let's get cracking. Playing the role of prosecution this morning will be myself, while our esteemed C.E. Bell will appear as the defense for the Northwestern opening statement.

I. Case History and Opening Statement(s):

MNW: Your honor, esteemed members of the OTE jury, I come before you a broken, humbled man. We at Northwestern have seen the error of our ways, the faults of pride, and wish to start anew. As we approach the 2014 season, we aren't going to tell you Northwestern is going to the Rose Bowl, or winning Big Ten Championships, or playing in the Championship Playoff series.

What we are going to tell you is that 2013 perfectly represented Murphy's Law wreaking its havoc on one football team. Everything, save for Jeff Budzien spontaneously combusting or turning into Stefan Demos, that could have gone wrong, went wrong. The OSU collapse. The Iowa overtime. The Nebr-- /sobbing noises. Michigan's field goal.

I humbly submit to you that Northwestern will bounce back in 2014. Trevor Siemian, who has stepped into the leadership role of union killer QB1 in the off-season, will evoke memories of Mike Kafka and CJ Bacher. Stephen Buckley will slash in a way that calls to mind Tyrell Sutton, easing the blow of Venric Mark's departure. And this WR corps, even without Christian Jones, could become a monstrous asset, forcing teams to cover modern-day D'Wayne Bates, Jeremy Ebert, and Drake Dunsmore, all at once. It won't be basketball on grass, but the Wildcats are poised to score with alarming and maddening consistency.

On defense? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, defense wasn't the problem in 2013. Sure, the run defense struggled in the limelight, but I'm not calling this a championship defense. I'm calling it one that can bend without breaking, hold teams through the air, and get the ball back to the offense for another long, clock-eating drive. Ibraheim Campbell looks to solidify his draft stock. Chi Chi Ariguzo is quietly a candidate for All-B1G First Team LB (and is already All-B1G Best Name). With a deep and veteran secondary, a tested linebacking corps, and an improving defensive line, the 'Cats will find a way in 2014.

Case History and Opening Statement for the Defense:

C.E. Bell: May it please the court and members of the jury....we have all been seduced by the promise of Northwestern. Even I, the counsel for the defense, have picked them to be 11-1 as recently as last year.

Have we learned nothing from such folly?

Now, make no mistake -- Northwestern has improved, and continues to improve. Their recruiting is on a sustained upswing, they're building a tremendous lakefront training facility, they redshirt tons of guys which helps improve overall team talent/experience/depth, and they have a steady, experienced coaching staff that allows for consistent messages in scheme.  You rarely, if ever, see the blowout losses of yesteryear with the Wildcats; their heartbreaking losses of 2013 were not a sign that this team was terrible, but rather that it was very competitive (if unlucky and injury plagued).

But that improvement, while impressive and certainly vaulting the Wildcats into the solid B1G middle class of teams that can challenge maybe ever 3-4 years for a division/conference championship, also comes at a price: namely, that teams no longer overlook the Wildcats. The element of surprise is gone -- no player on the field in college football (most of whom were born 1992-1997 or so) knows a time when Northwestern was anything but a consistent bowl-caliber team.

While I can agree with my esteemed colleague MNWildcat that Northwestern will bounce back from 2013's heartbreak, that bounceback will be modest: a 7-5 or 8-4 season.  Northwestern's secondary is certainly improved, but without Tyler Scott at DE and Damien Proby at LB, and with question marks at DT, the Wildcats will have some problems stopping the talented rushing teams (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, and That Team in South Bend) on the schedule. Trips to Happy Valley (a perennial house of horrors for the Wildcats under Fitzgerald), improved Minnesota, South Bend, and Iowa City (well, the Cats have done pretty damn well there, come to think of it), loom large. The crossovers (at Penn State, Michigan) did Northwestern no favors.

And then there's this: Northwestern faces Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Purdue ALL coming off of bye weeks (to be fair, Northwestern also has byes before Iowa and Purdue). How in the holy scheduling gods did that happen?

I think Northwestern's defense remains respectable. I think their offense improves, including the rushing game, as Trevor Siemian capably mans an aerial assault that will keep opposing defenses on their toes and prevents them from ganging up on a suddenly [ed. note: STILL!] deep stable of NU running backs (Treyvon Green, Venric Mark, Stephen Buckley, plus freshman Justin Jackson). Special teams takes a step back without Budzien....and the luck improves from "Godawful" to at least "Minimally Negative."  And the result is a low tier bowl game, another win of the LOLHat over hapless Illinois, and maybe a November game or two with real division title stakes.

II. Discovery

A. What OTE Wrote about Northwestern This Off-Season

NU Players Attempt Unionization, by Graham Filler
Northwestern Cocktail Party: Northwestern is More Than Jeff Budzien, by Jasper Scherer
Smartest Guy in the Room: Taking a Look at Pat Fitzgerald, by Jasper Scherer
Potluck, Pt. 1, by MNWildcat
Potluck, Pt. 2, by MNWildcat

B. What We Can Learn from Pop Culture

C.E. Bell: For pop culture on Northwestern (and given his tragic death), I suggest this Robin Williams bit on the origins of golf -- a sport beloved by the Armani-wearing Northwestern alums, and a sport as cruel and sadistic as Northwestern's bad-luck/injury-plagued 2013:

C. Timeline of Events

All times CST, TBA unless stated

August 30: vs. California, 2:30pm

September 6: vs. Northern Illinois, 2:30pm

September 20: vs. Western Illinois

September 27: @ Penn State, 11am

October 4: vs. Wisconsin

October 11: @ Minnesota

October 18: vs. Nebraska, 6:30pm

November 1: @ Iowa

November 8: vs. Michigan

November 15: @ Notre Dame, 2:30pm

November 22: @ Purdue

November 29: HAT

December 6: Big Ten Championship Game, 7pm

III. Emotional Plea:

MNW: Ladies and gentlemen, Northwestern stands before you a humbled program. Off-season labor disputes. Venric Mark's suspension and transfer. No bowl game in 2013. We have seen the error of hubris.

That said, 2014, while not the year, will be Northwestern resurgent. Consider the leap from 2007 to 2008. A Northwestern program left out of the bowl picture in 2007 (at 6-6), returning an erratic but clearly gifted starting QB and a promising backup, with a deep defense eager to prove its worth. Sound familiar? Sleep on Northwestern at your own peril. The West is anyone's to be won this season. Northwestern needs a lot to go right, as always, but more has to go right than last year. The offense will echo the 2008 offense which chewed clock, controlled drives, and dinked-and-dunked defenses to death. The defense will be solid if unspectacular, bending but rarely breaking in ugly fashion. This Northwestern will vault itself back to 9-3 range, playing the style of offense that made them such a wildcard opponent in the aughts.

I ask you, humbly, even meekly: Do you want to live in a world where Wisconsin continues to roll up championships and falter on the national stage? Where Iowa--IOWA!--walks into the end of the season 10-0? (We remember what happened when they were 9-0, right?) Where Nebraska loses four games, stumbles ass-backwards into a whooping in Indianapolis, and crows about higher expectations?

If you do, you're probably from Iowa, Wisconsin, or Nebraska, and that means no one really gives a shit, anyways. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Northwestern stands before you as the non-threatening alternative. As the plucky underdog, year-in, year-out, who can be a positive story on the national stage. We have learned from the error of our ways, and we can return to 9-3. We've learned how to win our bowl game. Northwestern stands in the way of the hated Hawkeyes, Badgers, and Cornhuskers. Go 'Cats.

C.E. Bell: The prosecution makes a powerful argument for a resurgent Wildcats team, headed for 9-3 glory in 2014. And it's one that could very well come true....

But too much needs to fall in place for the ‘Cats to make that much progress. This team is good, don't get me wrong -- the secondary may be the best since 1995-96, the running backs are deep, the O-line (which struggled in 2013) has one more year of experience and more depth pushing the starters, Siemian has a phenomenal arm, the receiving corps is talented and deep, and I'm excited to watch Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo rush the passer. Throw in NU's recent stellar recruiting class, and I can almost sip the purple drank with you and see a 9-3 year.

But the schedule (at South Bend in November? At Iowa? At Penn State, where Fitz never seems to win?)....facing tons of teams off bye weeks...the weakness at defensive tackle (which is doom against backs like Abdullah and Gordon and Weisman)...and, ultimately, the fact that every team on NU's schedule respects the Wildcats and won't overlook them....all of that cautions against extreme optimism.

Jury, put your faith in the Wildcats, but not too much faith.  Expect a 7-5 (4-4) campaign, with losses to the South Benders, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and either Michigan/Minnesota/Penn State....but expect a bowl victory, because the Wildcats are on a bowl winning streak.

IV. The Verdict

Graham is a big fat jerk. I am the most optimistic. 'Cats go bowling?

Writer Prediction
Aaron Yorke 7-5 (4-4)
Aaron Rench 7-5 (6-2)
Andrew Krasomethingpolish 8-4 (5-3)
Brian Gillis 6-6 (4-4)
GoAUpher 6-6 (3-5)
Ray Ransom 8-4 (5-3)
MNWildcat 9-3 (6-2)
DJ Carver 7-5 (4-4)
MCClapYoHandz 5-7 (3-5)
Candystripes 5-7 (2-6)
Eric Schulman 6-6 (2-6)
Graham Filler 4-8 (2-6)
babaoreally 7-5 (3-5)
Jesse Collins 7-5 (3-5)
Mike Jones 8-4 (5-3)
GoForThree 6-6 (2-6)
Average 6.6-5.4 (3.7-4.3)