Key injury: Syracuse OT Justin Pugh (shoulder)
Syracuse has any number of reasons to win this game: the team underachieved last season last year (5-7/1-6) and wants to put a bad 2011 season to rest; head coach Doug Marrone is rumored to be on the "hot seat"; the Orange have a tough nonconference schedule (including USC, Minnesota and Missouri) and wins will be at a premium; senior quarterback Ryan Nassib has something to prove at the end of his college career; it’s the school’s last season in the Big East Conference and it wants to move to the Atlantic Coast Conference on a high note, etc. Whether the Orange will rise to the occasion remains a question.
Look for Syracuse (depth chart)and Nassib to target Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales downfield to gain yards in large quantity and energize the home faithful. If they establish the pass, they can then turn to Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley to run the ball effectively. Keep an eye out for Ashton Broyld too. Although he is not on the depth chart, he'll likely see some time in one or more offensive skill positions. It will be incumbent on the offense to put the game out of reach because the defense is suspect to start the season.
Northwestern (6-7/3-5 in 2011, with a bowl loss to Texas A&M) comes into the Carrier Dome with hopes of establishing itself as a contender; the Wildcats often are dismissed early as an also-ran in the Big 10 Conference. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald owns a 40-36 record over entering his seventh year at the helm. His 2012 team could be bowl quality, but is not likely to threaten for the Legends Division crown.
The team returns just 10 starters and gives full-time care of the offense to quarterback Kain Colter. Last year the versatile Colter threw for 673 yards (six touchdowns, one interception), rushed for 758 yards (nine touchdowns) and added 466 receiving yards (three touchdowns). Kolter will have talented wideouts Demetrius Fields and (USC transfer) Kyle Prater as targets, who should challenge the skills of the Orange secondary.
This will be a game of offensive execution because, like Syracuse, Northwestern’s defense leaves something to be desired. The outcome is unlikely to be lopsided, though the home crowd will be a factor, particularly if the Orange maintains a lead on the Cats.
Pete's pick: Syracuse to win