When they head down to Evanston on Oct. 4 the Wisconsin Badgers could see a very different Northwestern team than the one they thumped 35-6 in 2013.
Sheer regression to the mean after a very strange year has the Wildcats' fortunes pointed up for their 2014 campaign, but they'll have to rely on an experienced group to make it back to a bowl game and potentially compete for a division title that they never even sniffed in what was supposed to be their breakout year.
The Wildcats get a bonus in that Wisconsin and Nebraska have to travel to Evanston this year, but they'll need to take advantage of those opportunities in a way that they weren't able to last year.
Of the teams we've looked at so far, Northwestern has two big things going for them. For one thing, their recruiting map is much more diverse than, say, South Florida's.
Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats have recruited in 10 key states over the last few years, hitting most of the nation's talent hotbeds along the way.
Ohio, Texas, Florida and California prospects have received just over half of Northwestern's scholarship offers over the last four years. That's a smart way to work when you're competing with other BCS schools in your home state.
And if that weren't enough, the Wildcats have also had a lot of success in signing the players they offer from those states. Illinois naturally has their highest success rate at almost 41 percent, but the Wildcats also signed 15 of the 54 Ohio natives they've offered since 2011, along with 8 of the 53 prospects they've offered in Texas.
Considering the number of other teams they need to compete with in those states, the Wildcats seem to have a remarkable amount of traction in those pipeline states. They've signed at least two players from their top three states in each of the last four years, which says to me that what the Wildcats sacrifice in star power they make up for in year-to-year consistency.
If their map does have any weak spots, I'd point to Indiana and Georgia. They haven't signed any prospects from those states over the last four years, but they make up just 4.6 percent of their total offers, so it's not like they're wasting a lot of effort in those states. We'll see if their efforts produce more results in the years to come, or if they re-direct their resources somewhere else.
Northwestern had a strange season in 2013. They started off 4-0 and peaked at No. 16 in the rankings before losing each of their next seven games. Their losses to Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan came by an average of 5.25 points, and they capped off the season with a 30-6 loss to Michigan State and a three-point win over Illinois on the road.
But even though last year failed to live up to expectations, the Wildcats could be poised for a bounce-back season just because of natural regression to the mean. They're set to bring back nine offensive starters and eight defensive starters, and that returning experience could help them prevent the same kind of late-game breakdowns that plagued them in 2013.
Offensively we might see a bit of a shift in the passing game. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian largely split the job over the last two years, but with Colter gone it looks like Siemian will be 'the guy' moving forward, unless the coaching staff decides to stick with a true two-quarterback system and insert freshman Matt Alviti as the team's new running quarterback.
If the Wildcats hand Siemian the starting job I'd expect him to improve on his 59.7 completion percentage. The Wildcats largely used him as their quarterback in obvious passing situations, which probably depressed some of his stats by taking away some early-down and short-down throws.
With four of their top five pass-catchers back, along with a healthier Venric Mark, I think it's fair to expect a better offense out of the Wildcats this year. They finished No. 52 in S&P+ overall last year, but that was largely because of a really poor performance on passing downs (2nd and 8 or more, or third/fourth down and five or more to go). The Wildcats also return their entire two-deep on the offensive line, which should help boost their running game- especially if Mark can stay healthy.
Defensively I like what they have coming back this year. 12 of their 14 top tacklers are back from last season's unit, and they bring back all four starters from last year's secondary. That could help them take a step forward in pass defense (they were ranked No. 73 last year), and if the returning members of their front seven can produce at around the same level as last year Northwestern's defense should be good enough to keep them afloat if their offense gets bogged down.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.