THE LINGERING QUESTION: Will the defense be improved? More playmakers are needed along the line, and two new starting linebackers are needed.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: If the offense is one of the best in the Big Ten and the defense ranks in the middle of the pack, Northwestern may compete for the Legends Division crown.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: If the ground game remains grounded, QB Dan Persa gets hurt again and the defense remains a sieve, the Wildcats may be bowl-less for the first time since 2007.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Northwestern managed just 1.2 sacks per game last season, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten. The Wildcats must generate more pressure and big plays to turn around a defense that fell apart late.
OVERVIEW: This has the makings of a dynamic attack, featuring a veteran quarterback, an experienced line and a deep collection of pass catchers. If the rushing attack takes hold, Northwestern will be difficult to stop.
BACKFIELD: Dan Persa is the perfect fit for this spread attack and may be the top quarterback in the Big Ten. He set a Big Ten single-season record for completion percentage (73.5) last year. The smart and heady Persa, who ran for 519 yards, also was the second-most efficient quarterback in the league, tossing 15 touchdowns and just four picks. But his season ended with an Achilles injury against Iowa that caused him to miss the final three games. Persa also missed spring drills rehabbing, but he's recovered and ready to go. The Wildcats need him, as they lost the three games he missed. An anemic ground game needs to be juiced up. Northwestern hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006. Mike Trumpy has potential, but he isn't a special talent and needs help. Adonis Smith, Jacob Schmidt and Tyris Jones are the holdovers with the best chances to compete with Trumpy, a nephew of former NFL TE Bob Trumpy.
RECEIVERS: Persa will have perhaps the deepest group of receivers in the conference. Jeremy Ebert, a first-team All-Big Ten pick last season, is back after leading the team with 62 catches (15.4 ypc) and eight touchdowns. Demetrius Fields demands respect on the other side, and Charles Brown can work the slot. TE Drake Dunsmore is a formidable weapon on third downs and in the red zone; he caught 40 passes for 381 yards last season.
LINE: The unit has four starters back - each of that quartet started every game last season - and should be among the best in the Big Ten. The group will be anchored by star T Al Netter, a dynamic blocker who excels in pass protection. C Ben Burkett directs traffic from the interior. Both Netter and Burkett have started 39 games in a row. The other veterans - G Brian Mulroe and T Patrick Ward - are entering their second seasons as starters. Add it all up, and this unit has 137 career starts, making it the second-most experienced line in the nation.
OVERVIEW: The last time we saw this defense, it was getting shredded. In the first 10 games of the season, the Wildcats yielded an average of 21.4 points and 387.0 yards per game. In the final three games, each a loss, Northwestern allowed an average of 54.3 points and 556.7 yards. The development of the front seven is the key to this being a representative unit.
LINE: The front has the potential to be one of the Big Ten's best, as only T Corbin Bryant is gone from the starting group. E Vince Browne, who had a team-high seven sacks in 2010, is the key guy. He may be the top pass rusher in the Big Ten. T Jack DiNardo, the nephew of Gerry DiNardo, has a chance to be special, but he missed spring drills recovering from shoulder surgery. Ts Niko Mafuli and Brian Arnfelt - both upperclassmen - must take the next step in their development, and depth is needed at end.
LINEBACKERS: The Wildcats are looking for two new starters here; one of the departed is standout Quentin Davie. There could be as many as seven players competing for playing time in a unit with underrated athletic ability. David Nwabuisi, Ben Johnson and Bryce McNaul have the best shot to man the starting slots. Coaches feel they have improved this unit's speed and athletic ability in recent recruiting classes. It's time for youngsters such as Collin Ellis, Tim Riley and Damien Proby to begin to emerge.
SECONDARY: CB Jordan Mabin and SS Brian Peters - the team's top tackler in 2010 - are good building blocks, and FS David Arnold - who started late last season - is an experienced hand. Jeravin Matthews could be a factor at cornerback. But competition still could be fierce as the staff looks to inject more speed. Six players who saw action at safety last season are back.
The competition to replace K Stefan Demos will continue in camp. Jeff Budzien is in line for the job, but he will be pushed by walk-on Steve Flaherty. The punting is set with Brandon Williams; he ranked sixth in the Big Ten with a 39.9-yard average. The return game was among the best in the conference last season, ranking fourth in punt and kickoff returns. Backup WR Venric Mark is a playmaker. In the Wildcats' last regular-season game, Mark set a school record with 273 kick-return yards and ran one back for a touchdown. The coverage teams were good last season, especially against punts; the Wildcats allowed just 43 punt-return yards all season.
the recruiting side
Average national rank past 5 years: 70th
The buzz: Pat Fitzgerald signed a small class in February, a group that finished 11th in the Big Ten but was highlighted by Texas wide receiver Christian Jones, Florida defensive end Max Chapman and in-state offensive linemen Matt Frazier and Jack Konopka. In 2012, commitments from in-state standouts Malin Jones, a running back, and Dean Lowry, a defensive end, have Northwestern off to a solid start. But the Wildcats need to land some of the top prospects in Illinois to take the next step. The good news is that they are in the mix for many of them. - MIKE FARRELL
Northwestern's ground attack needs a boost, and true freshman Jordan Perkins may provide it. He committed to Stanford but ended up signing with Northwestern. Perkins, from Lodi, Calif., has speed and good hands, making him a nice fit for this spread offense.
There are five road games against 2010 bowl teams. Challenges abound right out of the gate, as three of the first four contests are on the road. It's vital the Wildcats start no worse than 2-2. October will be the make-or-break month, with three of the five games on the road. If this really is an elite Big Ten team, it will beat Michigan and Penn State in Evanston. A fast finish may be needed, so it's a good thing the final three games are at home.
Northwestern is in the midst of one of the best runs in school history, playing in bowls in each of the past three seasons. How high can Fitzgerald take his alma mater? The Wildcats could have one of the Big Ten's top offenses if Persa bounces back from his Achilles injury. Defensively, it's all about how the front seven comes together.