A lot remains up in the air as kickoff approaches for Northwestern's 2015 football season. We've spent all summer trying to figure out who fits where, who played well and why, who needs to step it up, and which players will be key as the Wildcats seek to snap their bowl-less season streak. Now, we deliver our bold predictions for the year.
Zach Pereles: Dan Vitale leads the team in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
I love Vitale's versatility. He can line up outside, in the slot, in the backfield and on the line. He's a good route runner with solid athleticism and strong hands. Vitale can run so many routes too. He can stretch the field with his speed, go over the middle and use his size/strength combination, catch the ball on screens and make yards after the catch, and be a reliable check-down option when things aren't developing downfield. With Jayme Taylor's injury, both Vitale and Garrett Dickerson will get more snaps, and while Dickerson has earned rave reviews this offseason, Vitale is established as the primary receiving superback. Last year, I wrote about how he has to be more involved in the offense, and he still finished second, second, and tied for first in the above-mentioned categories, respectively. This year, I think he becomes the focal point of the passing game.
Josh Burton: Garrett Dickerson becomes Northwestern's second-most important pass-catcher
With the news that superback Jayme Taylor will miss the upcoming season due to an ankle injury, Dickerson will be Dan Vitale's sole backup at the position, meaning the former top recruit will have lots of pass-catching opportunities. There's a reason ESPN had him as the 82nd best player in the Class of 2014 (and the fourth-best tight end) and I think, this season, he'll make good on those high expectations. He's a huge target, much bigger than Vitale, so both linebackers and cornerbacks will have difficulty staying in front of him. He won't unseat the senior Vitale as Northwestern's top option, but I expect him to eclipse all the Wildcat receivers to become NU's second-best receiving threat. This should lead to more two-superback sets on offense for Northwestern.
Michael Odom: Northwestern leads Big Ten in interceptions.
On one hand, this prediction isn't that far-fetched because the Wildcats tied for fourth in the conference with 15 picks last year. On the other hand, it's unlikely because Ohio State returns an NFL defense that racked up 25 interceptions last season (albeit with two extra games). I still like Northwestern's chances because pretty much the entire defense is coming back this year and NU snagged all of those interceptions with the worst pass rush in the Big Ten.
Obviously the secondary has experience and depth, but -- perhaps more importantly -- all of NU's best pass-rushers will be back with another year under their belts. The schedule features a lot of suspect quarterbacks, so if the pressure on opposing QBs improves from dismal to decent, the second and third levels could come away with a lot of INTs.
Henry Bushnell: Northwestern finishes in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense
There are two parts to this prediction. One is that I love the talent on this side of the ball. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are two of the better two-way defensive ends in the conference, Anthony Walker could be a stud at middle linebacker, and we know about the secondary. And just as important, Northwestern now has quality depth. Mike Hankwitz has always employed rotations at positions like defensive tackle, but that didn't mean he was always swapping in Big Ten-caliber players for Big Ten-caliber players. Now he is.
The second part is the strength, or lack thereof, of Northwestern's opponents. Around the Big Ten, and even at Duke, there are question marks all over the place on offense. Teams like Minnesota and Michigan should be pretty good, but they don't have quarterbacks, and are significantly stronger on defense than offense. Penn State has offensive line issues, Nebraska lost their two best playmakers, Iowa is Iowa, Purdue is Purdue, and... well, you get the point. Northwestern could be locked in a lot of ugly, stereotypical Big Ten slugfests in 2015.
Ian McCafferty: Northwestern will be ranked at least once in 2015
Is this a bit too optimistic? Well, knowing Northwestern, probably. But I'm not saying that they'll finish the season ranked, only that they'll be ranked at least once. They don't even have to make a bowl game (see 2013) The reason I think this is because there are two relatively realistic situations where their schedule could help them out. The first one is obvious, if the Wildcats somehow manage to upset Stanford in week one, that'll put them on the fringe of the rankings. A strong showing against Eastern Illinois could put them in the low 20s and win at Duke would certainly put them in the top 25. Do I think that'll happen? No, not really. The more realistic option in my opinion is lose to Stanford in week one, but finish non-conference play at 3-1. Then a win against Minnesota in the B1G Ten opener puts them around #25.
Northwestern has been ranked three out the last five years, with last year being the first time they weren't ranked at all since 2011. So you could say history is on their side, kinda. Also, there's nobody on this year's schedule that I would say are an elite team. I could possibly see this team being 6-1 heading into Lincoln in October. Will that happen? Absolutely not. But if a couple of breaks go Northwestern's way being ranked isn't out of the question. Am I a naive young'un who's only truly lived through one full season of Northwestern football? Maybe, but against my better judgement I'm cautiously optimistic for the upcoming season.
Josh Rosenblat: Justin Jackson will rush for more yards than Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott
Every time I see some college football pundit go off on how good Ezekiel Elliott is, I always have to check the stats. In his final three games last season (the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin, the Sugar Bowl against Alabama and the national championship against Oregon) the then-sophomore ran for a whopping 696 yards. He finished the year with 1,878 yards on the ground. And his finish to the season has led to preseason hype and expectations elevated as high as being called the Heisman frontrunner.
But in the regular season, the same number of games (12) that Northwestern's Justin Jackson played in, Jackson out-rushed Elliott 1,187 yards to 1,182. Both Jackson and Elliott really took full control of the feature back role in their offenses by the season's fourth week and both ran for 100-plus yards in six regular season games in 2014.
In 2015, Jackson, who few people are touting as one of the best backs in the nation, will surprise a lot of people, vaulting himself into the national picture as just a sophomore. He and Elliott, along with Wisconsin's Corey Clement may not bring the same fireworks that Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb and Tevin Coleman brought a year ago, but their competition for the conference's -- and the nation's -- best back will be fierce. And Jackson, the quiet sophomore from Carol Stream, Illinois, will get the best of both.