Northwestern's 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl ended what was otherwise a remarkable season in Evanston. With a redshirt freshman quarterback at the helm, a third-straight 5-7 season seemed in order. Instead, the Wildcats won as many games as they did in 2013 and 2014 combined, using a talented and opportunistic defense en route to one of the best seasons in program history.
More on NU football going forward
More on NU football going forward
The offense, as Pat Fitzgerald admitted following the loss in Tampa, is behind the defense in terms of competition and depth. That was evident on the field this season. While the defense was ranked fifth in the country according to defensive S&P+ (an opponent-adjusted stat that rates defenses or offenses with a weighted points-per-game stat), the offense was ranked 111th out of 128 FBS teams. Most notably, the Wildcats lose superback Dan Vitale, guard Geoff Mogus and wide receiver Christian Jones for next year, but otherwise the young offense will remain largely intact. Here's how we see the offensive depth chart before spring practices begin:
UPDATE: Offensive line projections have shifted since original publication due to the omission of Shane Mertz, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
1. Clayton Thorson, sophomore
2. Matt Alviti, junior
Winning 10 games as a redshirt freshman is impressive, but Thorson will have to show some progress in the offseason. Northwestern's offense was one-dimensional this season and good defense were able to load the box and take away the Wildcats' run game. When that happened, Thorson, the offensive line and the receivers were not able to take advantage. Thorson has the starting job locked down, but Fitzgerald did mention toward the end of the season that Matt Alviti would push Thorson in the offseason. Again, though, this is Thorson's job.
1. Justin Jackson, junior
2. Warren Long, senior
Just like quarterback, there should be no surprises here. Jackson followed-up his superb freshman season with an even better sophomore campaign while Long continued to prove that, if he wasn't behind Jackson, he'd be a really nice feature back. Northwestern's set at tailback, it's strongest offensive position group.
1. Austin Carr, senior
2. Cameron Green, redshirt freshman
Austin Carr was easily Northwestern's most productive wideout and he wasn't even on scholarship coming into the season. He operated well out of the slot, making some big catches throughout the year. He's the team's only true big play threat through the air at this point. He averaged almost 19 yards per catch and finished the year with 302 yards on 16 receptions. Green is a bigger receiver who could do some things on the outside. He sat out this season as a redshirt.
1. Flynn Nagel, sophomore
2. Jelani Roberts, sophomore
Nagel played well in his limited action as a true freshman before a lower-body injury ended his 2015 season during the Minnesota game. He showcased an ability to get open -- a quality few Northwestern receivers possess -- and seemed to develop a decent connection with Thorson before he went down. Northwestern burned the redshirt of Jelani Roberts this season and used him most prominently on wide receiver reverses. He caught eight passes on the season for 48 yards and ran for 36 on 10 attempts.
1. Solomon Vault, junior
2. Charlie Fessler, redshirt freshman
Vault is the biggest question mark in this group. The junior-to-be practiced at wide receiver leading up to the Outback Bowl in an effort to get him the ball more, Fitzgerald said. But, following the game, Fitzgerald did not definitively say whether he would practice at the new position during the spring. Fessler, like Green, is another big, young receiver.
1. Garrett Dickerson, junior
2. Jayme Taylor, junior
This could switch depending on Taylor's ability to recover from an injury that forced him to miss all of 2015, but Northwestern, yet again, has two capable pass-catchers at superback. Even with the loss of Dan Vitale, Northwestern's best weapon in the pass game over the past couple of seasons, Dickerson and Taylor have enough talent to make up for his departure.
1. Blake Hance, sophomore
2. Tommy Doles, sophomore
Hance was a bright spot on the offensive line, stabilizing the protection of Thorson's blindside after the Geoff-Mogus-at-tackle experiment did not work. He was named to the Big Ten Network's All-Freshman Team. The former high school tight end is a really solid athlete at the left tackle spot. Doles, a six-foot-six tackle, saw his first action on special teams this season. It is possible he will back up both tackle positions (thus, he is on this depth chart twice).
1. Jared Thomas, redshirt freshman
2. J.B. Butler, sophomore
Northwestern will look to get similar contributions out of Thomas, who will be a redshirt freshman at guard, as it did out of Hance this season at tackle. Thomas is a good-looking prospect who could make an impact right away. Butler, a backup, should continue to be a valuable member of the interior offensive line as he can play both guard spots and center if need be.
1. Ian Park, senior
2. Brad North, junior
After Park solved his snapping issues, he was able to keep his starting center job for a good portion of the season. If he starts at center again in the spring, he develop into a nice leader for this offensive line group. North will probably backup Park again. This will be competition to watch.
1. Shane Mertz
2. Connor Mahoney, senior
Mertz was granted a sixth year of eligibility earlier this year. In 2015, Mertz started six games at right guard. He and Thomas will have to replace one of two senior stalwarts in Matt Frazier and Geoff Mogus. Mahoney entered the two-deep periodically in 2015 as a backup guard.
1. Eric Olson, senior
2. Tommy Doles, sophomore
Olson was one of the more consistent members of Northwestern's offensive line this season. With two years of starting experience in the books, Olson will need to take a step up to fortify this unit.