It isn’t easy being in the shadow of Ohio State and Wisconsin. Even the shadow of Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State to a lesser extent. If you were asked to name the teams that have won at least 10 games twice in the last three seasons, how many guesses would it take to name the Northwestern Wildcats? That’s what they’ve done, as Northwestern heads into this season with a 27-12 record over the last three years. The Wildcats have been to three consecutive bowl games for just the second time in program history. Northwestern had five straight bowl game appearances from 2008-12.
Pat Fitzgerald is back for his 13th year at the helm and the program is on a nice upswing with consecutive bowl wins for the first time ever. Fourteen starters return this season, including quarterback Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats could see a nice recruiting windfall in upcoming seasons with some new training and practice facilities. Northwestern should be right in the thick of things in the Big Ten West Division for a while moving forward.
The sportsbooks have Northwestern as the top challenger to Wisconsin in the West Division, as 5Dimes has the Wildcats at +2000 to win the Big Ten and +600 to win the West. BetOnline also has +2000. Unfortunately, with a pretty tough schedule, the season win total is 6.5 with the under juiced to -130 at DSI Sportsbook. BetOnline is 6.5 with -110 both ways and 5Dimes is 6 with the over at -140. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
|Date||Opponent||BangTheBook Line||Expected Wins|
|8/30 (Th)||@ Purdue||+1||.49|
|10/6||@ Michigan State||+11||.20|
Expected Wins: 6.53
Justin Jackson could be a significant loss for the Wildcats. The standout running back had 1,311 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Sophomore Jeremy Larkin had six yards per carry on his 84 tries, so maybe he can fill the void left by Jackson, who exited as the program’s all-time leading rusher by nearly 1,000 yards. Larkin racked up a good chunk of his yardage in the bowl game against Kentucky, so he did get some much needed experience late in the year. That being said, Jackson hit the 1,000-yard mark in all four of his seasons at Northwestern, so this loss is huge.
Clayton Thorson is back and scouts are kind of intrigued about his size, but his college numbers haven’t been that stellar. Thorson completed 51 percent of his throws as a freshman, 59 percent as a sophomore, and 60 percent as a junior. He only had a 15/12 TD/INT ratio last season, though, in his defense, the Wildcats star receiver Austin Carr prior to last year. Thorson’s top two options, Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel are both back, so there’s that, but Thorson seems to be one of the more overrated quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Maybe he’ll take better care of the football this season, but he won’t have Jackson. The Wildcats do return four offensive line starters, but only ran for 4.2 yards per carry last season and allowed 31 sacks.
The Wildcats don’t beat themselves for the most part. They’ve been on the plus side of turnover margin in each of the last seven seasons. They were +7 last season and are +16 over the last two seasons. There are seven returning starters here, including top linebackers Paddy Fisher, who had an excellent freshman season last year, and senior Nate Hall, who led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss. The front seven looks to be pretty solid again, which is important for a team that allowed just 3.2 yards per carry last season.
The secondary has experienced some losses. Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro combined for 18 pass breakups and seven interceptions last season. They are both gone. Northwestern allowed 250 yards per game through the air last season and this is a bad time to be faltering in the back seven in the Big Ten West. Thanks to some new head coaching hires, like Scott Frost at Nebraska, Jeff Brohm at Purdue, and PJ Fleck at Minnesota, we should see offenses improve across the board in this conference. Northwestern’s strength has been its defense over the last three seasons, but some of the impact players are no longer there in the secondary.
The Wildcats have a tough schedule. They draw Duke and Notre Dame in the non-conference and also play a lot of winnable Big Ten games on the road with matchups at Purdue, at Rutgers, at Iowa, and at Minnesota. The only true gimme game in Big Ten play is the finale against Illinois. Northwestern even avoids Ohio State and Penn State in crossover play, but does draw Michigan and Michigan State.
Pick: Under 6.5 (-115, BetOnline)
Our expected win total basically falls right on the number, so it seems like we have a good pulse on the Wildcats for the upcoming season. The loss of Justin Jackson is going to hurt. Northwestern ran 998 plays to the opposition’s 926 last season by efficiently moving the chains with Jackson and the occasional Thorson completion. There will be more strain on Thorson and more strain on the defense this season. With the Big Ten West likely improving this season, Northwestern could very well be the team that slips up and comes back to the pack a bit.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
Hopes are high in Evanston for the 2017 season. The Northwestern Wildcats avoid Ohio State and Michigan from the East and have a lot to build on from last year’s winning season. The Wildcats weren’t able to replicate the 10-3 mark from 2015 and went just 7-6, but beat a very good Pitt team in the Pinstripe Bowl and gave Ohio State everything that the Buckeyes could handle at the Horseshoe. Sixteen returning starters are back and Northwestern has a legitimate shot to play in the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time in program history.
A very slow start cast a negative shadow on the 2016 season, as the Wildcats lost at home to Western Michigan and then to FCS Illinois State the following week. Except for a flat effort at Minnesota, the Wildcats played well the rest of the season, but the damage had already been done with those two early losses. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has a third-year starter in Clayton Thorson and a really strong defense to build around in hopes of pushing the program to new heights, much like what has happened with the basketball team.
A friendly schedule has Northwestern’s win total at 8, with the over at -125 at 5Dimes Sportsbook. Keep in mind that bowl games and conference championship games are not included. This is only regular season wins. The Wildcats are looking to make a third straight bowl game appearance for the second time this decade. Are bigger things in the future for the ‘Cats?
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
Total Expected Wins: 8.37
Clayton Thorson returns for Northwestern as a junior signal caller after a pretty strong season last year. Thorson posted a 22/9 TD/INT ratio and completed 58.6 percent of his tosses. He starts the season just 2,783 yards behind Len Williams for the second all-time leader in passing yards, a mark that he should get during the soft end of the schedule. This has been one of the more popular win total over bets since numbers opened earlier this offseason. Justin Jackson is a stud at running back coming off of a 15-touchdown season with an average of better than five yards per carry.
Austin Carr is a big loss at wide receiver, but Northwestern has the best quarterback that it has had in a while, so somebody will step up, like Jalen Brown, an Oregon graduate transfer. The line is mostly in tact with a lot of returning starters and experience. Speaking of experience, Thorson having another year under center should lower the 39 sacks that Northwestern allowed last season and more efficiency in the passing game may help the rushing attack out as well. The Wildcats improved by 6.5 points per game from 2015 to 2016.
The Northwestern defense wasn’t able to maintain its 2015 numbers, but still turned in a fine 2016 campaign. The Wildcats were +9 in turnover margin because of 16 interceptions from the defense and also generated some big players against opposing quarterbacks. Ifeadi Odenigbo’s had 10 of the Wildcats’ 27 sacks last season and he has moved on to the NFL, but the base defense for the Wildcats is mostly in tact in the back seven, including leading tackler Godwin Igwebuike. One guy that isn’t there is Anthony Walker, so it will be important for the linebackers to improve quickly to fill that void.
Even if the defense does sag a bit, which is certainly possible, the offense should be more productive. Northwestern also doesn’t have to worry about Ohio State this season, though the Wildcats played toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes in Columbus last season. You probably wouldn’t expect it, but Northwestern is 11-5 against Big Ten foes over the last two seasons and a vastly improved defense has a lot to do with it. Northwestern’s three top commits in the 2017 class are all defensive linemen, so Fitzgerald’s team should be stout in the trenches this season and in the future.
The schedule sets up extremely well for Northwestern. The bye week is early, as it is for nearly all of the Big Ten teams, but Northwestern gets very winnable road games at Illinois and at Maryland, while getting some trickier games like Penn State at home. The toughest spot is a road trip to Madison on September 30 to open Big Ten play, but Fitzgerald and his team have a bye for that one.
As you can see, I’m down on Nebraska this season, so that’s a game ripe for the taking for the ‘Cats in Lincoln.
Win Total Pick: Over 8
We’ve lost some line value on this one, since some shops had this win total sitting at 7 for a while before some smart money investment drove the price up. If things fall right for Northwestern, a trip to Indianapolis in early December isn’t out of the question. They’ll have to stay healthy and not slip up in winnable games, but this looks like a team that could make a lot of noise in the weaker division of the Big Ten.