Its time to dust off the JCB Prop Creating Machine, come up with some fancy numbers and use them to preview the upcoming Big 10 season. We’ve done these in the past, but here’s a reminder on the routine. We take a look at each team through the prism of faux prop bets that also pinpoint main keys to that team’s season. To stress again, these are not real prop bets, unless noted otherwise. We are making these up on our own, but we feel pretty confident that the final tally of overs and unders with these will tell major portions of each team’s tale this season. We’ll be looking at one Big 10 team each week, with these posts  for the most part hitting the blog on Monday or Tuesday.

We’re starting with the Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern has now appeared in a school record four bowl games in a row. Can they make it five in a row? Here are the props and stats to track.

Kain Colter, Total Offense. Over/Under 2,500 total yards

Northwestern is more than just a program built around its offense. Everything it does revolves around getting quality playmaking in one form or another out of its quarterback. So its not hyperbole to suggest the weight of a successful season in Evanston and an extension of the program record 4-year bowl streak rests on the arm, legs, decision making skills and ability of Kain Colter. Can he turn Persapolis into Colterville? Can he keep an offense humming that specializes in running a lot of snaps–the Cats were 1st and 7th the last two years in drives of ten or more plays–and a crafty ability to always generate some sort of offensive progress. They’ve finished in the top third nationally two years in a row in available yards gained and value drives. He has three career starts under his belt, all last September filling in for the injured incumbent Dan Persa. And despite the small starting resume, he’s already had enough time to develop a Good Kain, Bad Kain schizophrenia behind center. There was the Good Kain, showing command of the offense en route to 268 total yards, a 70-percent completion rate and a 131.4 passer rating in a big road win at Boston College to start the season. And then was the Bad Kain, barely mustering completions in half his attempts against Army, for a measly 89 yards while unable to make any consistent plays in an upset loss to the Cadets.  

Despite the small sample size, I get the impression there’s a contigent who have already decided that Colter really isnt up for the job for a whole season. If you did straw polls throughout the NW fanbase, you might be surprised at how much support Trevor Siemian and others are getting for the starting quarterback job. But thats foolish talk. This is Colter’s gig. I believe in him, at least to put up some decent numbers. In his three starts, he did average 209 total yards per game, scored five touchdowns and turned the ball over just once. The Cats always biff once or twice against teams they should beat, so you cant pin the Army loss on him, and, as a result, pronounce him unfit for the job.

He’s go a lot going for him. His speed and running instincts automatically make the defense honest. The Northwestern offensive brass wont shy away from giving him chances to run the passing game. The Cats will use a lot of 4-wide sets, equipped with a tall, versatile set of wide outs led by Christian Fields, Rashed Lewis and, perhaps, Kyle Prater.  The Cats lost a lot of pass catching production from a year ago, but the returnees will able to give the Cats some matchup advantages througout the season. Colter will contend for 1,000 yards on the ground. I feel good about pencilling in a handful of 200-yard passing games, but also realize there could be just as many aerial clunkers out of Colter. Could it all come together for him and he flirts with a 3,000 yard total season? That might be generous, summer wishful thinking. But I do think he topples the 2,500-yard mark, so I know which side of this I would be on.

Malin Jones, Over/Under 530 Rushing Yards

What? You dont even know who Malin Jones is? Well, tell you what, lets take a look at his recruiting highlight reel and, in further attempts to lure people into taking a stab at this Over, remind everyone that of the two Northwestern’s returning incumbents at tailback, one ran for just 3.9 yards per carry a year ago and the other is recovering from an ACL.

 

Oh the Northwestern Running Back position. Its not the Spinal Tap Drummer doppleganger that the Iowa Running Back position is. No Angry Position Hating God is throwing bolts at the candidates from on high. But it certainly has its own issues. Its arguably the least glamorous skill position in the whole conference. It was inarguably one of the least productive tailback corps in the Big 10 a season ago. Only Minnesota got less out of their backs than the Wildcats in 2011. But thats been par for the course for the program during this bowl streak. They havent produced a 1,000-yard back since 2006 and only once since then has their leading tailback gained more than 530 yards. Its not for trying as many faces as possible back there however. Five different backs have more than 100 carries over the last three seasons with a sixth three totes shy of that mark. But none have really excelled. Sure they’re capable of making a play here or there during the course of the game. But they’ve all been generally ineffective and failed to give an otherwise peppy offense any extra juice. It sure would be interesting to see this tricky spread offense go up an extra gear or two with some legit tailback legs. The Wildcats are always on the hunt for running back answers. But Tyrell Sutton’s freshmen year isnt walking through that door. Nor probably is his senior year effort of 2008 where he paced the Cats with 890 yards, a workmanlike for Northwestern 184 carries and six scores.

But something close to that might just materialize in the form of Malin Jones, especially if the freshmen lives up to the growing hype. It might seem like a stretch to assume that a 3-star running back would emerge to be a star right away, but somebody has to get the carries this year for the purple. Consider the statuses of three of the top tailbacks from a year ago for Northwestern: Jacob Schmidt is out eligibility; Adonis Smith has transferred to UNLV; and Mike Trumpy is still rehabbing from ACL surgery. There is some excitement towards Trayvon Green after a nice freshmen campaign, but he was a pretty pedestrian as his 3.9 yards per carry attests. Venric Mark, who actually led the Cats in all purpose yards last season, is an intriguing option for carries, and redshirt freshmen Jordan Perkins could factor into the mix as well.

But the bottomline is there are plenty of carries up for grabs, and it might as well be Jones who gets a bulk of them. Besides, he has the talent to become the number one option during the course of the season. Per Rivals, he’s just the 26th rated running back in this year’s freshmen class. But he had an upscale sort of level of interest in his services carrying offers Notre Dame, Iowa, Illinois and Boston College. He’s stood out in consecutive off seasons at various high profile all star camps, including wowing all observers with his slick moves($) in the lead-up to January’s Semper Fidelis All American Bowl. He racked up more than 2,800 yards combined his final two years playing for the famous football powerhouse Joliet Catholic in the gritty southwestern suburbs of Chicago. He’s considered by many as one of the more underrated recruits in this year’s freshmen class, largely because his touches and spotlight was limited by sharing the position with 2013 top running back Ty Isaac. And, well, you cant help but wonder if he would have been ranked a bit higher had he not comitted to Fitzgerald and the Cats a full year before signing day. #ConspiracyForPageHitz.

Here’s the deal with Jones and why many are bullish he can have an immediate impact. He’s got a college ready frame, with weightroom freak strength. At Joliet , he proved capable running in between the tackles and had more than enough speed to get to the corner and break outside contain. He has the hands to be a weapon in the passing game, a crucial nugget for the Wildcat offense. The question is can all that materialize immediately in his freshmen campaign? I think there’s enough reason where I’d bet on him being the Cats leading rusher out of the tailback spot. I dont think Jones will get to 1,ooo yards,  but there’s a great chance this season he tops all numbers in the post-Sutton era. 

 Sack Differential, Over/Under (Better or Worse), -18

Now that we’ve got everyone excited about The Happening that will be Malin Jones, lets bring down the room a bit and talk about a stat that surely will have Wildcat fans shaking their heads: Sacks. That alone as a stat often doesnt really tell us a whole lot. But in Northwestern’s case something a bit more progressive as sack differential does. I couldnt find any official accounting of this stat, and I am too lazy too go through it myself to determine a ranking , but its hard to imagine many teams being worse than Northwestern in this a year ago. The Cats were 106th nationally in sacks with 17. They were 114th in sacks allowed with 42. Thats a -25 difference, meaning they pretty much lost this hidden number aspect of the box score every time out.

And it mattered. Army collected three sacks in their upset win over Northwestern. The Cats gave up consecutive sacks three times in the second half against Penn State, killing drives and their chances to topple the Nittany Lions.  They were -6 in sack differential against Michigan State, -4 against Michigan.  They collected just seven sacks in their seven losses last season. They were -28 in sack difference in those defeats. 

 The thing is I dont know how much improvement you can count on in this department. Their offensive line does return three starters, but losses its top two guys from a year ago, Al Netter and Brian Burkett. Both were four-year starters.  The offensive line is a major question mark on the edges. And work in progress. Patrick Ward, a 2009 4-star recruit, has been solid at best during his stints at right tackle. But he’s moving over to the left side to replace Netter. He hasnt showcased great athleticism yet in college, does he have the skills to handle speed rushers at a more prominent spot on the line? And who knows about the other tackle spot? Chuck Porcelli got first crack at the job, but didnt look very good in the spring. Do they turn to redshirt freshman Paul Jorgonson this summer? 

But, hey that leads us to the good news in this department. Even though the defense waived goodbye to two of the three players that had multiple sacks a year ago, there are hopes the purple D will get after the QB more fiercly this season. All three starting linebackers return, Colin Eliis, Damien Proby and David Nwabusi. They all should ring up more than the single QB nab they each got last season. And the pressure created from the defensive line made them the stars of Northwestern’s spring session. If, indeed, the Cats see through on getting after the quarterback more, then here will be your new stars up front: Deonte Gibson, who snared two sacks in the spring game; Quentin Williams, the lone returnee on D with multiple sacks a year ago; Tyler Scott, an end whose been productive in parttime roles the last two seasons, now getting a fulltime spot; and Ifeadi Odenigbo, an incoming 4-star per Rivals, top-100 nationally ranked recruit from Centerville, Ohio and one of the Cats most impressive defensive recruit in several seasons expected to contribute right away at OLB. If the Cats can improve a hypothetical letter grade in protecting and getting to the passes, expect them to win a couple more games and stay in division contention into November. If they dont improve, or even get worse, they’re going to need an upset somewhere in the second half of the season just to make a bowl game.

Northwestern, Will They Be Bowl Eligible? Yes or No

I havent seen any online book release a win total prop for Northwestern. Frankly, I doubt we’ll see one. So its up to us to invent one and try to figure out which way to go from there. We struggled firming up a number, so we’re going creative with this hypothetical prop and making it a simple yes or no call on whether or not Northwestern will win the required six games to be at least bowl eligible.

I said this last year about trying to total up a season’s worth of wins ahead of time for Northwestern, but it bears repeating. Its a difficult task because the Cats dont overwhelm you with talent. They can play down and lose to anybody on their slate. They can play up and beat just about anybody on their slate. And they dont get great home field advantage, so you cant even circle any swing games at home as sure fire wins.

I’ll give the Cats home wins over South Dakota State and Indiana. After that, no way I feel comfortable circling anything else as sure wins or even lean wins. That’s 10 coin flips, including the remaining three games of their non-conference slate that has them opening the season at Syracuse, then at home vs Vanderbilt and Boston College. Only twice in the last generation have the Cats won all their out of conference regular season games, so I wont give them a sweep in those three. I’d like to think the Cats have enough grit, moxie and skill in their offense in the bag to get two of those. But, make no mistake, those will be close, tight knit affairs and they could just easily drop two out of those three. One tidbit: Northwestern has defeated each one of those programs in their last meeting, all taking place since the start of the 2009 campaign. Thats a good sign if you like the positive side of this play.

As for Big 10 play, you have to be honest and admit that the Cats are on a bit of a downslide when it comes to collecting conference wins. After a run of 4-4 or better in five of seven years, the Cats have gone 3-5 in consecutive seasons. At times, they’ve lost their ability to even play close games. They’ve failed to cover in eight of their last 11 chances as a conference underdog with seven of those outcomes being double digit losses. Believe me, that has not helped the JCB’s bottomline either. They collapsed in the second halves against Michigan and Penn State and in the fourth quarters against Iowa and Illinois a year ago. As for this season, I suppose I can buy the Cats splitting consecutive road games at Penn State and Minnesota by beating the Gophers. I could see them pulling off one ‘upset’ by nabbing one of the back-to-back home games against Iowa and Nebraska in late October. I dont think they’re winning at Michigan State or at Michigan in November. The Spartans have owned the Cats of late. Besides, its the last home game of the year at Spartan Stadium and, historically speaking, MSU is lights out in the final game at home. That brings us to the closer at home against state rival Illinois. Should the 3-1 out of conference mark come to fruition, followed by at least two league wins,  that leaves Northwestern needing a win over the Illini to gain bowl eligibility at 6-6. Can they beat Illinois? Sure, they’ve won six of the last nine in the series. Can they lose to Illinois? Uh, yes, they’ve done so the last two seasons allowing 48 and 38 points in those contests.

Northwestern will be on the margins of bowl eligibility all season long. While they have only had one season with less than six regular season wins since 2002, I dont know how comfortable I feel giving Northwestern any more than six wins at this point. Can they put it all together and win something like eight games? Sure, but I’ve been on them in almost all those underdog failures pointed out above. I’m a little gun shy in my belief that that Cats are a winning Big 10 team. They might be the same old Cats we’ve seen the last two year, an incomplete team with good quarterback and WR numbers, albeit a lot less experience in those spots. There’s a good chance you could win any hypothetical positive bet on their bowl eligibility. But you might feel more comfortable all season long with a bet against them.