Entering the 2018 college football season, Northwestern holds the longest active winning streak among power five teams with eight wins (yes, you read that correctly). While the numbers imply an impressive run, the team still has room for improvement.
For the past couple seasons, Northwestern has reached for the goal of winning the Big Ten West, NU’s division in the Big Ten. Given that powerhouses such as Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan belong to the Big Ten East, winning the Big Ten West appears within reach for Northwestern to move into the upper echelon of college football programs, both in the big ten and nationally. Until Northwestern plays in a Big Ten Championship, the team will not command the respect of the Big Ten or the rest of college football.
Many observers believe a season with Northwestern winning eight or nine games would amount to a success because it is “Northwestern.” However, this is simply not true. First, Northwestern has a new, stunning training practice facility, the Ryan Fieldhouse. The building houses one of the best training centers in the country. The facility cost approximately 270 million dollars, contains over 96,000 square feet, and covers the Lake Michigan shoreline. Additionally, Northwestern has 27 wins over the past three seasons, a potential first round draft pick in Quarterback Clayton Thorson (who is coming off a torn ACL in the Music City Bowl and is questionable to play in the season opener, but players on the team believe he will play), an experienced and deep wide receiving core, and a vaunted front seven. While Northwestern will compete in the Big Ten for years to come because the team landed Hunter Johnson (a five star quarterback transfer from Clemson), there are no excuses anymore. Now is the time for Northwestern to make noise in the Big Ten. Simply put, this season will be defined by one goal: whether Northwestern can win the Big Ten West. This year is Pat Fitzgerald‘s opportunity to put Northwestern on the map with the Big Ten’s elite. Northwestern has fifteen returning starters with seven on both offense and defense and rising sophomore kicker Charlie Kuhbander. Northwestern’s offense has a big void to fill as the team lost the best running back in school history to graduation, Justin Jackson. Jackson was drafted in the seventh round by the Los Angeles Chargers. While Northwestern cannot replicate Jackson’s 6,298 all-scrimmage yards during his career-which ranks second in Big Ten History only behind Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne– the team will attempt to fill Jackson’s shoes with sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin, along with backups John Moten and Isaiah Bowser. Luckily, Northwestern seems to be in good hands, as Jackson himself tweeted we will not miss him this season because, “the boys @DEUCE_8 (Jeremy Larkin), Johnny Mo (John Moten), and the whole RB room GO CRAZY. Next wave comin and it’s something serious!!”
Northwestern’s quarterback situation is a unique one, as I mentioned previously. Clayton Thorson should start opening week at Purdue if he is cleared by Dr. James Andrews. While Thorson has the size, arm, and intangibles to be an NFL quarterback, for Northwestern to win the West this season, he needs to become a more accurate passer. Last season, Thorson ranked fiftieth among FBS quarterbacks with a 60% completion rate, and he threw twelve interceptions. Thorson is a good quarterback, but there are times when he becomes inaccurate. For Northwestern to contend with Wisconsin, he needs to throw fewer interceptions and become a more precise passer. At Northwestern’s training camp in Kenosha, all reports point to Thorson looking very good, and Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “some now believe he (Thorson) has more zip on the ball.”
At wide receiver, Northwestern returns with just about everyone outside of Macan Wilson. Wilson ranked third on the team in receiving yards with 446 yards on 32 receptions last season. In addition to Wilson, Northwestern lost superback Garrett Dickerson who had 38 receptions for 410 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. While these are moderate losses, Northwestern has a good replacement for Dickerson in superback Cameron Green, who is the son of former Notre Dame and Chicago Bear running back, Mark Green. Additionally, Northwestern’s receiving group will be deep as the team returns leading receivers Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek. Northwestern also has Solomon Vault starting at receiver, a very speedy and great kick returner. Vault was out last year due to a lower-body injury. NU has an intriguing backup at receiver in Jalen Brown, who transferred from Oregon last season but struggled with injuries.
Last season, Northwestern’s offensive line faltered at the beginning of the season with games against Penn State and Wisconsin, but as the season went on, Northwestern’s offensive line performed much better. The unit returns four starters with center Jared Thomas as the only new starter. If the offensive line can consistently perform well every week, Northwestern’s offense will be explosive.
On the defensive side of the ball, Northwestern has a tremendous front seven. This group consists of a few key players. Joe Gaziano is the starting left end, and he tied with Nick Bosa as the conference’s leaders in sacks with nine each. Northwestern also has middle linebacker Paddy Fisher who tied for fourth in tackles among the Big Ten. Northwestern’s front seven make up the strongest part of the team. The secondary is an interesting unit. The secondary loses two starters from last season. Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike were both great starting safeties. Fortunately, Northwestern replaces them with backups Jared McGee and J.R. Pace. Mcgee could have started at almost any other college football team. He was just stuck behind a couple of great safeties on the depth chart. Pace, a true freshman last season, performed solidly in his playing time last season with two interceptions. At cornerback, Northwestern returns the starting duo from last season with Montre Hartage and Trae Williams. Hartage was very good last season, but Williams was shaky, and teams often tried to pick on him in single coverage. If Williams develops into a reliable corner this season, Northwestern’s secondary will standout as a strong element of the team.
Given the state of the Northwestern roster, it is easy to see why the team has lofty expectations. However, the schedule will present an issue for Northwestern this season. While Northwestern’s ticket department is doing all it can to promote the “best home schedule in the country,” Northwestern will have an extremely tough schedule:
Vs #14 Michigan*
At #11 Michigan State*
Vs #4 Wisconsin*
Vs #12 Notre Dame*
*Preseason AP Top 25 Ranking
Although the schedule appears challenging, Northwestern has a relatively simple path to win the west. To analyze the season, it is important to look at Northwestern’s non-conference schedule. In terms of Northwestern winning the division, the non-conference games are irrelevant. I view the games as opportunities. Duke and Akron should both be wins, but a loss to either would strongly hurt Northwestern’s chances for a bowl game. Northwestern is, however, the superior team to both (though Northwestern did lose to Duke last season). The Notre Dame game does not have any relevance other than giving NU a chance to win a great game for its resume. A loss does not hurt the team nearly as much as win helps unless Northwestern is positioned to vie for a spot in the College Football Playoff. If this is the case, Northwestern cannot lose more than one or two games this season. Like Duke and Akron, this game does not have any impact on the team’s pursuit of a division title. The general rule for the non-conference schedule is that we should not panic with an early game loss to Duke, or *gasps* even, Akron. These losses would not have a direct impact on Northwestern’s fate in conference. However, if Northwestern does lose one of these games (specifically to Akron or Duke), it should raise a major red flag that this will be a rough season. Unlike all other seasons, Northwestern opens the year with a matchup against a conference team, Purdue. We will have a good idea early on of how Northwestern will perform in non-conference games.
In contrast to the non-conference schedule, Northwestern’s conference schedule is very important. Obviously, this is a tough schedule, but as we breakdown the schedule further, it is not as daunting. I divide Northwestern’s conference games into groups. First, Northwestern has to win the Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois games. All three are very winnable games that Northwestern should win if the team is going to appear in Indianapolis at the end of the season. If Northwestern loses a game to Illinois or Minnesota, these will be deflating losses late in the season. Purdue is slightly different, though. The Boilermakers are better than both Minnesota and Illinois, and if Northwestern loses, NU will be a leg-down with a conference loss coming at the start of the season, compared to the rest of the schools in the Big Ten West who start conference play after their non-conference games. Regardless, it is a game Northwestern needs to win, given the rest of their schedule.
The next grouping of games includes Iowa and Nebraska. Both games are tough, but if Northwestern is rolling through the season, these could be trap games as both teams are good enough to beat Northwestern. Again, these two games must be wins for Northwestern to earn a ticket to the Big Ten Championship.
Next, Northwestern has games against Michigan and Michigan State. NU, the heavy underdog in both games, needs to strive to win one of the games to position itself to win the west. Wisconsin plays games against Michigan and Penn State so both schools face a similar predicament in that both schools play two elite big ten programs. Finally, Northwestern plays the game against Wisconsin. This is the biggest game of the season. It is at home, and Northwestern needs to win this game to win the Big Ten West. This game will be a do-or-die.
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