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Big Ten season preview: Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats may be coming off a 10-win season, but you won't find them in any preseason polls or Big Ten championship conversations.

And they're not surprised.

"As a program, we're kind of used to it," cornerback Matthew Harris said last month. "Year in and year out, we never get much credibility. But it's a motivator. Hopefully, we can build upon last season and do a lot better."

Coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats are looking to silence those critics and get fans talking by achieving what the program has never before done: Win 10 games in back-to-back seasons. Before Fitzgerald took over in 2006, Northwestern had only ever reached double-digit wins on two occasions. Since taking over, Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 and 2015.

Back in 2013, the Wildcats responded to their own high expectations with a 5-7 record. Will history repeat itself this year? Can Northwestern take a step forward and build off a successful 2015? Here's a preview of the 2016 season:

2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: WR Christian Jones, WR Miles Shuler, SB Dan Vitale, OL Matt Frazier, DL Deonte Gibson, DL Dean Lowry, CB Nick VanHoose, S Traveon Henry

Key returners: QB Clayton Thorson, RB Justin Jackson, WR Austin Carr, OL Eric Olson, OL Blake Hance, DL Tyler Lancaster, DL C.J. Robbins, LB Jaylen Prater, LB Anthony Walker, CB Matthew Harris, S Godwin Igwebuike

Instant impact player: WR Ben Skowronek. Realistically, any one of Northwestern's three true freshman receivers could make an impact here. But Skowronek is especially intriguing because of his hands and consistency -- two traits that Northwestern sorely needs. No Big Ten team had a higher drop rate last year, and Skowronek is a possession receiver that, ESPN's scouts wrote, "pulls the ball out of the air with a naturalness to him." He's not currently in the starting rotation, but the situation at receiver remains fluid. At 6-foot-4, Skowronek has both the size and talent to work himself into the lineup sooner rather than later.

Key stat: 123-16. That's the combined lopsided scores in Northwestern's three losses -- 38-0 to Michigan, 40-10 to Iowa and 45-6 to Tennessee -- and that's a big reason why Northwestern isn't ranked in any preseason polls. Fair or not, Fitzgerald said he understood the snub because of that. The Wildcats tended to win small last season -- five victories were decided by one score -- or lose big.

Best-case scenario: The offense continues to heap a heavy load on Jackson, but he embraces it and leads the FBS in carries. Thorson rises to the level of "average," and the new-look receivers no longer boast the worst drop rate in the conference. The defense is once again strong, while Walker wins Northwestern's first Bednarik Award since Fitzgerald in 1996. Northwestern grabs nine wins in the regular season, remains in the race for the West Division and then grabs win No. 10 in the postseason. It becomes the first time in school history Northwestern records back-to-back 10-win seasons.

Worst-case scenario: The Wildcats' luck in close games finally runs out. Thorson is improved -- but not nearly to the extent this offense needs. Defenses key in on a frustrated Jackson, as Northwestern's passing offense fails to crack the top 90. The defense is still obviously good, but the departures of Lowry and VanHoose sting more than anticipated. They lose big to the B1G's elite teams, and they lose nail-biters to Indiana and Minnesota. Northwestern does not make a bowl game and wins just two conference games.