Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald
2015 Record: 10-3
2015 Bowl: 45-6 Loss to Tennessee at Outback Bowl
2016 Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 6 Defense
Odds to win 2017 Championship Game: +125000
Odds to win 2016 Big Ten Championship: +5500
Regular Season over/under: over 7 (+135), under 7 (-165)
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The Northwestern Wildcats return the workhorse that helped them finish 10-3 last season in tailback Justin Jackson. Jackson carried the ball 312 times last season en route to 1,412 yards. Northwestern averaged 188.5 rushing yards per game, ranking No. 42 in the nation.
The OL returns three starters to clear the way for Jackson more. The Wildcats also return QB Clayton Thorson, who threw 50.8 percent for completion last season. He has worked on his accuracy and mechanics this offseason, and OC Mick McCall felt he had made progress in spring.
The WR corp is questionable: Austin Carr is the leading returning pass catcher, while Marcus McShepard and Solomon Vault will be counted upon heavily after moving from other positions. Both will likely start. The loss of superback Dan Vitale is a big loss, and he was the team’s leading receiver last year. SB Garrett Dickerson and Jayme Taylor will both be big factors. Taylor missed last year with an ankle injury but was very promising two years ago as a freshman.
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Northwestern is really strong in the middle. The Wildcats have plenty of depth and experience at DT with four strong options in Tyler Lancaster, C.J. Robbins, Jordan Thompson and Greg Kuhar. MLB Anthony Walker made first-team All-Big Ten last season with 20.5 tackles.
S Godwin Igwebuike is a superb athlete who can lay down big hits, and he’ll keep the secondary air tight. At CB, the Wildcats will insert Keith Watkins II to replace four-year starter Nick VanHoose.
Watkins should be ready for the role, and he played great when VanHoose was injured during the Outback Bowl. Matthew Harris is on the other side as a third-year starter and key to the defense. DEs Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington both have experience, but they need to work on their consistency this season.
K Jack Mitchell hit just 2 of 7 from 40 to 49 yards last year and was 18 of 27 overall. Hunter Niswander averaged 38.0 yards per punt. Opponents only averaged 2.0 yards per return on his odd rugby-style punts. Vault is a good return man with two TD returns on kickoffs last season.
Northwestern opens the season Sept. 3 at home against Western Michigan and will stay at home for Weeks 2, 3 and 4 with matchups against Illinois State, Duke and Nebraska. Both Michigan State and Ohio State will be away games on Oct. 15 and Oct. 29.
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Last season’s 10 wins was Northwestern’s first in double digits in 20 years. The team should be slightly more balanced this season, but it will be really difficult to recreate last season’s success with Iowa, MSU and OSU al being road games.
Northwestern can continue to ride Jackson and a strong defense to relevancy, but Iowa will still likely have no problem securing the West division. And Northwestern is still about the fifth-best in the Conference, overall.
The defense is so strong in the middle and the OL has enough experience to make it work for the Wildcats’ backfield. Having Jackson back sort of guarantees a level of success, but the WR corp is pretty weak overall and the 138 passing yards per game of 2015 were not sufficient. Northwestern could top out at even eight wins, but the reality is likely more at seven.
Prediction: 7 wins
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