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GOULD: Notre Dame, NIU, Northwestern look solid; Illinois, not so much

rod Carey

rod Carey

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Updated: September 19, 2013 10:04AM



The great thing about college football is its unpredictability. Because there are so few games, the drama meter is set on high. And because things can turn on a dime, you just never know what’s going to happen.

Notre Dame reaching its first national-championship game in nearly a quarter of a century? Believe it.

Northern Illinois making the Orange Bowl? Who would have predicted that?

Northwestern winning a bowl game after coming within a few bounces of running the table? Amazing.

Illinois slogging through hip-deep mud? Well, some things
don’t change.

The point is, 2012 was a banner year for three of our big four college football teams. Here’s what I want to see from them in 2013:

Can the Irish build on it?

Never mind the humbling loss to Alabama, Notre Dame had a marvelous season just getting to the championship game.

Many will assume this means the Irish are back to being a regular contender for the biggest prize in college football. It’s easy to overlook how neatly things fell into place last season — how many close calls were survived, how many stars emerged, how much each success fueled confidence.

I’m not convinced Notre Dame will come close to approaching the same level this fall. Quarterback Everett Golson and linebacker Manti Te’o are huge losses. And there are plenty of teams — Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State and Stanford, to name a few — capable of making life difficult.

Lightning rod?

There’s every reason to believe Rod Carey can jump right in and continue the success Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren enjoyed in DeKalb, where NIU has won 34 games the last three seasons.

That’s especially true with Jordan Lynch, who passed for 3,000 yards and ran for 1,800, back at quarterback. NIU also has a great formula of recruiting speed from the South and building toughness everywhere.

I just want to see it. You should, too. It’s amazing how many seats NIU has to fill.

And that was a bunch of baloney, yapping at the Huskies for earning an Orange Bowl slot. With the new bowl format, there are going to be more and more New Year’s underdogs. Get used to it.

Give them Fitz?

At 38, Pat Fitzgerald (50-39) already is Northwestern’s all-time winningest coach. He got the bowl-victory monkey off the Wildcats’ back last Jan. 1.

Now what? I want to see if NU can contend for a Big Ten championship. It won’t be easy to do because of a much tougher league schedule that adds Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Nor will it be easy to do in a division that includes Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. But analyst Phil Steele says this might be Fitzgerald’s ‘‘most talented team.’’

And, as with NIU, there are plenty of tickets available. Hey, Chicago, have a problem with winning?

How rough a ride?

The last time Illinois tried to showcase itself at Soldier Field, it lost a 10-9 heartbreaker in 1994 to Washington State when it fumbled and gave up a 71-yard touchdown.

I’m wondering whether the Illini can be that competitive against a very solid Washington team
Sept. 14 at Soldier Field.

For that matter, I’m trying to see a way that coach Tim Beckman can avoid a repeat of the 2-10 disaster a year ago. Adding offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is a big plus. Losing your two best offensive linemen and a bunch of defensive studs are bigger minuses.

This doesn’t shape up as a really good year to strut your stuff before the Chicago alums.

Email: hgould@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HerbGould



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