EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Northwestern hopes the headlines will finally focus on victories.
The Wildcats enter the season hoping to capture attention for their play rather than their leading role in the college unionization debate, and it starts with Saturday's opener against California.
"I think everybody that's associated with college football is always excited this week," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Considering everything that's happened in recent months, that might be more than just coach-speak where Northwestern is concerned.
Besides serving as the ground zero for a movement that could alter the college landscape with former quarterback Kain Colter leading the push to form the first union for college athletes, the Wildcats took some big hits with the unexpected losses of some key players. Front-line receiver Christian Jones and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly suffered season-ending injuries, and star running back Venric Mark decided to transfer.
Those were big blows for a team coming off a 5-7 season, particularly the loss of Mark. He missed most of last season because of a broken ankle after rushing for 1,366 yards as a junior in 2012 and was granted a medical hardship by the Big Ten that gave him a fifth year.
But instead of a triumphant return, he got suspended for the first two games for violating a team rule. The school announced two weeks ago he was transferring to play closer to his family in Texas.
As for the unionization issue, that's still looming in the background. The effort started to pick up momentum last season and the team voted in April, shortly after National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Ohr ruled that the Wildcats' scholarship football players were "employees." The NLRB impounded the ballots pending an appeal by the university so the results of the vote are not known.
A more immediate concern is Saturday's game, the start of what both teams hope will be a rebound season.
California went 1-11 last year, its first under Sonny Dykes. The lone win was against lower-division Portland State after losing the season-opener to Northwestern. The Golden Bears lost their final 10 games and have dropped 16 straight to FBS opponents.
Things weren't quite as bad for Northwestern, but they sure were disappointing. The Wildcats were 4-0 coming off a 10-win season and were leading Ohio State by 10 at home before everything unraveled.
With that in mind, here are some things to look for in this game:
QUARTERBACKS IN SPOTLIGHT: California's Jared Goff is looking to build on a strong freshman season, while Northwestern's Trevor Siemian hopes to show he can handle the job by himself after sharing time with Colter the past two seasons. Siemian, a senior, has thrown for more than 3,700 yards in his career, and he ranked sixth in the Big Ten in completion percentage (59.7) last season. Goff was one of the few bright spots for Cal last season, breaking the single-season school records for yards passing (3,508), total offense (3,446), passes completed (320) and passes attempted (531). He is also fully recovered after having surgery on his throwing (right) shoulder.
"It's been a year and everything's slowing down and becoming more comfortable," Goff said. "Last year at this time I didn't really even know what to expect."
SLOW IT DOWN: Fitzgerald wasn't happy last year when Dykes accused Northwestern of feigning injuries to slow Cal's no-huddle offense. And he insisted this week that's not the Wildcats' style.
"I think I made my point pretty clear after the game," Fitzgerald said. "It's not something that we do."
UNBEARABLE 'D': Cal comes in with a revised defense and a new coordinator in Art Kaufman after giving up 45.9 points per game while getting devastated by injuries. Defensive end Brennan Scarlett is back after missing last season because of a hand injury, and the Golden Bears are counting on him to ignite their pass rush.
NO GREEN RB: Yes, losing Mark hurt Northwestern. But they still have a solid tailback in Treyvon Green. He ran for 736 yards — 5.4 per carry — and eight touchdowns as a junior last season.
MORE BALANCE?: As good as Goff looked last season, Cal had no balance on offense, ranking fifth in passes and 104th in rush attempts. With freshmen Tre Watson and Vic Enwere along with returning running backs Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad, Cal has more options to run the ball.