Northwestern will enter the season with a target on its back.
The Wildcats are ranked 22nd in the USA Today coaches poll. That’s a bit lower than expected, considering coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team finished last season 16th and not one player was drafted into the NFL.
But when you’ve earned just one end-of-season ranking since 1997, you’re fighting history.
Fitzgerald was asked for his reaction to the ranking during his “Car Wash” visit to ESPN’s headquarters Thursday.
“We’re going to have to totally change training camp now,” he said sarcastically. “I’m not sure what we’re going to do. We’ve arrived. It’s amazing.”
Notre Dame checked in at No. 11. The Irish lost stars Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert to the NFL and quarterback Everett Golson to an academics-related suspension, but retain veteran signal-caller Tommy Rees.
Northern Illinois, coming off a 31-10 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, finished 38th in the vote count.
Defending national champs Alabama snagged 58 of 62 first-place votes, with Ohio State (3) and Texas A&M (1) grabbing the other four. After Ohio State (No. 2), the highest-ranked Big Ten teams are Michigan (17) and Nebraska (18). Wisconsin is 23rd and Michigan State received votes.
Northwestern hasn’t been ranked in the preseason since 2001, when the Associated Press had the Wildcats 16th and the coaches had them 14th.
This year’s preseason AP poll will be released next week.
Tailback Venric Mark, quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and defensive standouts Tyler Scott and Ibraheim Campbell are among NU’s 15 returning starters – 18 if you count specialists.
“We have a lot of experience coming back,” Fitzgerald said on SportsCenter. “Now how are how we going to put it all together.”