Northwestern finally shredded the monkey Jan. 1 and won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose, recording its 10th win in the process. Pat Fitzgerald's crew returns the core pieces from that team, but faces a tougher schedule featuring the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Can Northwestern take the next logical step and reach the Big Ten title game, or will it backslide in 2013?
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39, seven seasons at Northwestern and overall)
2012 record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)
Key losses: G Brian Mulroe, OT Pat Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams
Newcomer to watch: Redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White had an excellent spring as he makes a push to start opposite Nick VanHoose. White, a 5-foot-10, 178-pound speedster, has good ball skills and brings a playmaking threat to a secondary that, while improved, needs more difference-makers. White will push Daniel Jones and others for playing time this fall.
Biggest games in 2013: The Wildcats face plenty in Big Ten play, starting with the league opener Oct. 5 against Ohio State. If Northwestern and Ohio State both come in undefeated -- a good possibility -- it'll be Northwestern's biggest home game in Fitzgerald's tenure. Another big game follows Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, and Northwestern opens November with three Legends division tests, as it visits Nebraska (Nov. 2) and hosts Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23).
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Northwestern must shore up its line play on both sides of the ball after losing valuable veterans to graduation. Three starting spots must be filled on the offensive line, including right tackle, as Jack Konopka is expected to slide over to the left side. Several likely starters missed spring ball after offseason surgeries, which gave players like Shane Mertz and Ian Park added reps.
Northwestern also must find a space-eater or two on defense after losing Brian Arnfelt. The team has better depth at defensive end than tackle, where it needs more from veterans Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly.
Outlook: The arrow is definitely pointing up in Evanston after Northwestern recorded just the second 10-win season in team history and could have easily won more games. Many of the building blocks remain, including the dynamic backfield of Mark and Colter, who executed the zone-read game to perfection last fall. Northwestern has upgraded its recruiting efforts, especially on defense, and should boast more speed, athleticism and depth than it did in 2012.
So why is there a hesitation to buy into the Wildcats, who most are picking to finish third or fourth in the Legends division?
There's the Northwestern factor, as some still can't separate the program's current state from its pathetic past in the 1970s and 1980s. A more valid reason for concern is the schedule, as both Ohio State and Wisconsin return, and Northwestern skips the Indiana schools. There won't be many easy games during Big Ten play, and getting back to 10 wins will pose a significant challenge.
Northwestern once again will employ a quarterback rotation of Colter and Trevor Siemian, a big-armed junior who can spark the passing game. The receivers had a somewhat underwhelming season, but could be a bigger threat this season as almost everyone returns. Tight end Dan Vitale blossomed down the stretch in 2012 and will attack the deep middle along with wideout Christian Jones.
The defense generated 29 takeaways in 2012 and hopes to continue its playmaking ways with more explosive athletes at all three levels. Campbell is one of the Big Ten's best defensive backs, and VanHoose made a huge difference when healthy. Northwestern needs linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo to continue smothering the football, and for speedy down linemen like Dean Lowry to complement Tyler Scott on the pass rush.
Special teams was a huge factor for Northwestern's success in 2012, and must continue its upward trajectory. The Wildcats also hope to stay healthy after losing only five starts to injury -- the fewest in the Big Ten -- last season.
"To have the number of young men we have coming back in '13 from a starting standpoint," Fitzgerald said, "gives us great confidence we'll hopefully be able to take the next step."
On paper, this is a better Northwestern team than the 2012 version, but the tougher schedule will make it difficult to match or exceed last season's win total.