Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, sixth season (34-29 at school and overall)

Last year: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten (tie, seventh); lost to Texas Tech 45-38 in TicketCity Bowl

Returning stars

Dan Persa ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense and pass efficiency, set a Big Ten record with a 73.5 completion percentage and was voted first-team All-Big Ten despite missing the final two conference games with a torn Achilles tendon. Jeremy Ebert of Hilliard Darby led the Big Ten with 953 receiving yards. Safety Brian Peters of Pickerington Central tied for the Big Ten lead with 65 solo tackles, and he also had three interceptions.

Newcomers to watch

With 21 seniors returning and two-thirds of them likely to start, not a lot of rookies figure to get a chance. One who could is tight end Jack Konopka. Fitzgerald called him "my most intriguing freshman" in preseason camp.

Keys to the offense

Persa needs to stay healthy, and with as much as he runs out of the spread (17 carries or more in seven of the 10 games he played), that could be difficult. The emergence of a reliable running back could remove some of the burden. The wild card is Kain Colter, a quarterback whom coaches need to find a way to get on the field with Persa. Colter had three completions, a 32-yard reception and 105 yards and two touchdowns rushing in the bowl game.

Keys to the defense

Fitzgerald lambasted the defense after it gave up 163 points and nearly 1,700 yards in the three games after Persa went down, saying "we lost our attitude" and declaring the job of every player "in jeopardy" going into this season. Redemption will start with a better pass rush; only 16 Football Bowl Subdivision teams had fewer sacks, and nearly half of the Wildcats' 16 sacks were by one player, end Vince Browne (7.0). Two starting linebackers also must be replaced.

Special teams standouts

Diminutive Venric Mark came on strong the second half of his freshman year and finished fourth in the Big Ten in kickoff returns with a 26.2-yard average. He is scheduled to return more punts this year, too. The Wildcats averaged 38 net yards per punt, second-best in the conference, off the foot of Brandon Williams.

Question marks

Who will help Persa shoulder the ball-carrying load? How will his mended Achilles tendon hold up? Will the defense pull its weight or make the offense average 35 points per game for Northwestern to have a chance to win?

Outlook

Northwestern's seniors are one win shy of having the most by a class in program history (25) and have gone to three straight bowl games. The program has four consecutive nonlosing seasons for the first time since 1935 to 1938. The Wildcats' toughness will be tested by six of their first nine games being on the road, among them at Boston College, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.