The Northwestern Wildcats have won the Big Ten West division in two of the last three seasons (although it’s still a stretch to legitimately call 2020 a “season” for anybody, whether they were good, bad, or anything in between).
While Northwestern was, without question, built a program foundation that is as strong as its ever been. Still, the bookies are not bullish, not at all about their Big Ten title chances. If you’re looking for more information on betting sites, specifically the conference title odds, then you’ll see NU way on down the list.
Typically, they are priced around +3500, and about eighth or ninth most favorable in the 14 team league. They are not even in the top three most favorable bets, within their own division, in this regard.
So why is that?
Northwestern Biggest Weakness
This Northwestern Wildcats team returns very little experience. With just 34% of their total statistical production coming back from last season, 126th overall in FBS, it’s easy to understand why the purple enters this season unranked by the AP.
Although they did receive eight votes in the poll, which is even more meaningless than usual in the preseason.
“I mean the national media has got to find something negative to say about us,” said I mean that’s pretty much par for the course,” said Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“Let’s find the negative there it is right so I really don’t care. I talked about it at media day down in Indy, everybody wants to talk about what we don’t have coming back. I’ll just let the guys that are back let their play speak for themselves. Right, that’s what it’s all about.”
Some very key roles such as QB, WR and LB will need to be filled.
Northwestern QB @ryan_hilinski , who lost his brother Tyler Hilinski to suicide a couple years ago, honors his memory with this lighthouse tattoo;
— Paul M. Banks (@PaulMBanks) August 9, 2021
Northwestern Training Camp Storyline
Hunter Johnson, who had a very rough 2019 and didn’t throw a pass last season, shocked us all by beating out Ryan Hilinski for the starting QB gig. Senior Andrew Marty will likely be the third string.
A former five-star recruit who transferred from Clemson in 2018, Johnson opened the 2019 season as the starter but flopped, completing just 46% of his passes for one touchdown and four interceptions five starts. Aiden Smith and Marty then took turns as the starter during a 3-9 season that saw offensive coordinator Mick McCall finally sacked.
Over the years, Northwestern has really had some really good quarterbacks, and they have been fairly consistent, overall at the position.
“It’s no secret in our game hot important the quarterback position is,” Fitzgerald said, as he described the roller coaster the program has been on at the position the past couple of years.
“I think from a trust standpoint, I think trust eroded in ’19…you look at ’18 with the all-winningest quarterback, you look at last year with the way that Peyton (Ramsey) played, I think there was a lot of confidence and trust in that position.”
Will Hunter Johnson finally live up to all the hype, hoopla and recruiting rankings positioning this season?
Northwestern Best Strength
Until getting injured and ruled out for the season, Cam Porter looked the part of an All-Big Ten running back, and the offensive line is deep and experienced. They have been on a very positive trajectory since 2019, improving quite a bit from mid 2020 onward. Offensive line coach Kurt Anderson is among the better ones in the business.
With Peter Skoronski at left tackle and Ethan Wiederkehr at right tackle, the unit should strive and thrive despite having to break in two new guards.
You know a Fitz team will play heavy defense, so the rushing attack (along some heavy D.) will help take that massive load off Johnson and the inexperienced WRs he’ll be throwing to.
With Porter out, and Isiah Bowser and Drake Anderson having transferred away, the feature back will likely be by committee. It’ll be a duty shared by Bowling Green graduate transfer Andrew Clair, redshirt sophomore Evan Hull and freshman Anthony Tyus III.
Hull had 495 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 13 games over the past two seasons.
Player to Watch
Last season, Brandon Joseph, with apologies to Big Sean, “came through in the clutch more than lipsticks and phones.” The preseason All-American knows that he’s a huge leader on this team, and it’ll be on him to anchor a defense led by new coordinator Jim O’Neill.
Joseph articulated what it’s likes to be the last line of defense:
“I’m running to the ball every single play, we are the open field tacklers, you have to be ready to sprint to the ball, be ready to attack.” Joseph can also tell you all about both the art and the mindset that goes into being a defensive back, matching a receiver at the fringe of battle where the loser bleeds alone on an open field.
With apologies to Andrew Lloyd Weber, “go go go Joseph you know what they say. Hang on now Joseph, you’ll make it someday.”
Season Defining Games
Beating Michigan State in the season opener might be too tall a task for a team this young, but at least they avoid #19 Penn State, #17 Indiana and #4 Ohio State in their crossover games. The intra-division games against #18 Iowa and #12 Wisconsin, along with the clash at Minnesota, will go along way towards deciding the Big Ten West winner.
Look at Fitzgerald’s record against Kirk Ferentz. You know it’s good, but did you know it was that good?
Will the Hawkeyes get one back this time around?
Don’t be shocked if they start 5-1, with ease, but still finish 7-5. Then again, Fitz is known for producing his best ball in November, so maybe this prediction is bunk, and they’ll finish with 8 or 9 wins again.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune.Follow paulmbanks