Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald
2014 Record: 5-7 overall; 3-5 Big Ten
2014 Bowl: N/A (Last Bowl 2012 Gator Bowl)
2015 Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Odds to win 2016 CFB Championship: +100000
Odds to win 2015 Big Ten Title: +8000
Regular Season Wins: Over 6 (-125); Under 6 (-105)
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The Northwestern Wildcats haven’t made a bowl since 2012 but appear to be solving its quarterback controversy which will hopefully shore up a major weakness last year.
Northwestern had just a 57.4 percent passer accuracy and 40 percent conversion on third downs.
The Wildcats will be able to structure the offense around a good RB in Justin Jackson. He had six games with 100+ yards last season and ranked fourth among Power 5 freshman in all-purpose yardage (98.9). At WR, the Wildcats will return Christian Jones, who led the team in 2012 and 2013.
The Cats also have Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson as backs to create some matchup problems for opposing defenses. Northwestern had just 34 plays last season for more than 20 yards, and the hope is that Miles Shuler and Solomon Vault can open things up to create big plays this year.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald said “We have to get faster and more explosive,” and that should be possible with Shuler and Vault, but the OL has to do a better job and with several of them having switched positions, there will be a turnover.
At QB the Wildcats seem to be leaning towards freshman Clayton Thorson (per SB Nation, Apr 8). Thorson has a strong arm and he is also mobile, which will be an added boon given QB mobility was -94 yards last year for the Wildcats. Thorson is 6’4” and agile, he’ll fit well in trying to open the field up for both his feet and his arm. He’s not locked in as a starter yet, but indications seem to lean towards him being the man.
Defensively, the recruiting upgrades will begin to pay dividends. LB Anthony Walker and S Godwin Igwebuike combined for five interceptions and a forced fumble last year as redshirt freshman, and now they’ll have some experience to build on. Both are now full time starters and the secondary returns three players. It could be the best secondary under Fitzgerald thus far.
Northwestern has ample experience at CB and DE in Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, as well as Xavier Washington who was the only true freshman defender in 2014. Odenigbo has 8.5 career sacks and he also forced three fumbles last season. This could be his season to really step up and become a major performer.
Northwestern struggled kicking the football last year, and punter Hunter Niswander is going to try to improve the fate of the group that finished 121st and 118th nationally the last two seasons in net average. Jack Mitchell hit 14 of 18 FG last season, including a game winner over Notre Dame in Northwestern’s highlight of the season. For returns, Shuler and Vault should help boost the yardage. Vault averaged 26.2 yards on kick returns last season (though he didn’t get a lot of opportunity).
The Northwestern Wildcats need to make a bowl this year. Fitzgerald has the pieces most especially on defense, but the special teams are going to be important; improvement there is imperative for this team to exceed expectations both at-large and in the Big Ten. The WRs also have to be better about making plays and securing the football, while the OL will need to provide adequate protection for an inexperienced QB most likely.
Those black marks don’t paint the picture of a winning season, and 5dimes sets the O/U on wins at ‘6’ (a .500 record). Given that Northwestern does have talent and is seldom worse than mediocre, this bet is a likely push. There’s not a lot of value in the Over at -125, and six is likely also about a bottom out for this team. Opening the season at Stanford is a tough draw—but if Northwestern can pull out a victory it will put them on the right track with games against Eastern Illinois, Duke and Ball State following Week 1.
Prediction: 6 wins