Northwestern ranks 30th in S&P+ Returning Production as they bring back 16 starters, 8 on each side of the ball. The Wildcats will have an extremely experienced roster playing for one of the most stable coaching staffs in FBS, as Pat Fitzgerald enters his 12th year in Evanston with both an Offensive and Defensive Coordinator that have been with him for a decade. That generally is a recipe for success.
The Wildcats truly do possess everything you would want in a contender: a multi-year starting Quarterback (Clayton Thorson), a Running Back with multi-thousand yard seasons (Justin Jackson), depth on the Offensive Line, 8 of 11 returning tacklers, and zero losses in a stingy Secondary. The scheduling Gods for 2017 also did Northwestern a favor since they will avoid cross division games against Michigan and Ohio State on their schedule.
One of the biggest areas of concern for the Wildcats offense will be wide receiver production. Northwestern must find someone to replace at least some of the production of 2016 B1G Wide Receiver of the Year, Austin Carr. Carr, who is currently on the Patriots roster, finished last season with 90 catches, 12 touchdowns, and a school single season record 1,247 yards. You don’t just replace that output overnight, but look for Garrett Dickerson to step up his production in 2017. The issues at receiver will be much less worrisome if the offensive line improves in pass protection as this group allowed 39 sacks in 2016.
While the Offense isn’t the most explosive in the Conference, the Defense more than compensates with their discipline, big play potential, and nastiness in the Redzone. Outstanding interior linemen, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson, lead a talented and deep front 7. Fitzgerald expects this depth will cover the losses of two important players from 2016 to the NFL Draft, MLB Anthony Walker and DE Ifeadi Odenigbo. If the Wildcats don’t miss a beat at Defensive End, this unit should be one of the best in the B1G.
The defense did finish last in the B1G in pass defense, but should be much improved in 2017. The Wildcats will return all 4 starters in the secondary, and will get Senior Corner Keith Watkins back from an ACL injury that kept him out in 2016.
Keep an eye on the Northwestern kicking game, an area they will need to get better in if they want to compete for a B1G Championship. In 2016, they only attempted 12 total field goals as Fitzgerald lost confidence in his kicker, and pretty much killed the kicking game.
Expected Win Totals
CW Projected Total Wins: 8.6
CW Projected B1G Wins: 5.9
Posted Total Wins: O 8 -125
Home Field Advantage: 2.6
Opening Power Rating: 56
|Sep 2||Nevada||Northwestern||NW -18.5|
|Sep 9||Northwestern||Duke||DUKE +3.5|
|Sep 16||Bowling Green||Northwestern||NW -20.5|
|Sep 30||Northwestern||Wisconsin||WISC -8.5|
|Oct 7||Penn St.||Northwestern||NW +6|
|Oct 13||Northwestern||Maryland||MD +8.5|
|Oct 21||Iowa||Northwestern||NW -6|
|Oct 27||Michigan St.||Northwestern||NW -7|
|Nov 4||Northwestern||Nebraska||NEB +4|
|Nov 11||Purdue||Northwestern||NW -15|
|Nov 18||Minnesota||Northwestern||NW -4|
|Nov 25||Northwestern||Illinois||ILL +13.5|
|Legend: Off Of Bye / Overlook Watch / B2B Road Games / Neutral Site|
Northwestern gets 5 home conference games including Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan State. The Wildcats travel to Wisconsin after their bye week for a showdown that could very well decide the West Division. The current Game of the Year line is Wisconsin -13.5, which I find way too high since my numbers make this a single digit spread. Take Northwestern +13.5 GOY line for September 30th.
Also, take note of the Penn State game the following week. Northwestern will spend 2 weeks preparing for the Wisconsin ground attack. They should be plenty ready for the Penn State Barkley attack on the ground. Penn State will be heading into a Bye Week and will want to enter healthy. No matter what happens in the Northwestern-Wisconsin game, I would look to back Northwestern at +7 or better against Penn State. The Wildcat Defense can defend the run, and the Nittany Lions won’t worry about extra scores trying to get into a Bye Week healthy.
If you believe Fitzgerald can win the West and has a shot in the B1G Championship, then take a look at B1G West Division futures at +500 and/or B1G Championship futures at +2200.
I was one of the first to hit Northwestern Over 7 at Cantor Gaming when it popped in Las Vegas this past May. That Over is now at a juiced 8 which I still think ultimately hits. Northwestern is projected to be an underdog only twice on in 2017 (Wisconsin, Penn State). At worst Northwestern Win Total Over 8 -120 should be a push, with Michigan State and Nebraska being the games needed to get to the window.
The road team in the Northwestern/Nebraska series is 5-1 in their last 6 meetings; the 1 home win was a Nebraska hail mary as time expired.
Godwin Igwebuike (S) – The statistical leader is now becoming a leader on the field. Igwebuike is leading Fall Camp in 11-on-11’s in tackles and INT’s, while vocally keeping the Defense engaged. In 2016, Igwebuike led Northwestern with 108 tackles, and demonstrated his big play ability with 6 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions.
Jared Thomas (LT) – Fitzgerald claims he is just trying to find "the right 5" to start on the Offensive Line, yet Jaren Thomas lines up at Left Tackle daily in camp. The true sophomore, who only had 1 start in 7 games last season, appears to now be the starting Offensive Tackle protecting the blindside of Clayton Thorson. Fitzgerald claims this is a ‘fluid’ situation, but keep tabs on the starting Left Tackle situation for the Nevada game and throughout the early part of the season since pass protection was an issue in 2016.
Since 2013, Unders are 15-3 when the Wildcats are a home favorite
It all goes right if…
Northwestern can upset Wisconsin. Circle that game on your calendar as that September 30th matchup will go a long way in determining who will represent the West in the B1G Championship game. The last time Northwestern went to Camp Randall, they entered as a 10 point dog and won outright by 6. If they can duplicate that effort, Northwestern could have a historic season. They do play Penn State the following week, but the Wisconsin game will serve as a tie-breaker for the West Division.
It all goes wrong if…
They lose at Duke in week 2. There is no reason this team shouldn’t be 3-0 going into a bye to prep for that aforementioned Wisconsin matchup. Anything less than 8-4 and 2nd place in the B1G West would be a major disappointment with this schedule and the talent returning in the trenches and skill positions.
Season Wins Over 8 -120
Northwestern +13.5 vs Wisconsin
For more, check out the full B1G Conference Preview.