Contender or pretender: Northwestern

We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and starting a series that examines whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series won't include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska, three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict (a final verdict in late April, mind you). We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.

First up, the Northwestern Wildcats.

Why they're contenders: Not only did Northwestern win 10 games last season, including its first bowl in 64 years, but the Wildcats return the core pieces from the 2012 squad on both sides of the ball. Fifteen starters return, including the dynamic offensive backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and Venric Mark, an All-Big Ten running back and an All-America all-purpose player. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who shared time with Colter and improved as the season progressed, also comes back. The key receivers are back and could see enhanced roles in a more balanced offense, and tight end Dan Vitale, a weapon down the stretch last season, is just a true sophomore. Northwestern's speed-based recruiting efforts on defense are starting to pay off, especially in the secondary, where the team returns standouts Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose and boasts good depth at both cornerback and safety. Defensive end Tyler Scott, the Big Ten's leading returning sacks leader, is back, along with several exciting young edge rushers. Special teams once again should be a strength with Mark and Jeff Budzien, the 2012 Big Ten co-kicker of the year, back in the fold.

Why they're pretenders: It all starts up front, and Northwestern has question marks on both of its lines entering the fall. The Wildcats must replace three starting offensive linemen, including All-Big Ten guard Brian Mulroe. Several potential starters sat out spring practice, and while that gave young players increased reps, the first-team line will have limited time to bond before the season kicks off. Northwestern also is a little thin at defensive tackle after losing Brian Arnfelt. The biggest potential drawback is a schedule that definitely gets tougher and could be significantly more challenging than the 2012 slate. Northwestern faces Ohio State for the first time since 2008, and Wisconsin returns to the slate as well after a two-year break. The Wildcats open Big Ten play with the Buckeyes (home) and the Badgers (road). And while Northwestern has established itself as a solid Big Ten program under Pat Fitzgerald, it hasn't handled high expectations well, like in 2001 (preseason Big Ten favorites) and 2011.

Final verdict: The schedule is definitely a factor, but if Northwestern can split its first two Big Ten contests, it should be right in the mix for the Legends Division title. The Wildcats host the Michigan schools, and although they visit Nebraska, they won in Lincoln with an inferior team in 2011. Some still don't take Northwestern seriously because they can't shed the perception created in the program's dark days. Those days are over, the talent is much better and most of it returns. Northwestern is a contender.