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Northwestern football 2016 expectations roundtable

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next several days, we'll be publishing three roundtables to wrap up football season. The second two will discuss the most encouraging aspect of the season when looking ahead to next year, and the most discouraging aspect.

The first one is on general expectations for next year... So simple question, how many games do you expect Northwestern to win next year, and why?

Josh Rosenblat: 8-4

I almost went nine wins. I really did. I think the main thing those who picked seven wins are missing is that Northwestern will undoubtedly improve. The offense has nowhere to go but up, we all agree. But, like this season, the offense won't be the unit that pushes the Wildcats to win eight games. It'll be the defense. An improved defense. Throwing on Northwestern will be more difficult than ever. And an experienced and talented linebacking group that started two underclassmen last year will learn so much over the offseason. The defensive line is the biggest question mark, and that's with a strong interior of Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson that can develop into game-changers against the run. Northwestern's defense could be better in 2016, which is scary and will offset Northwestern's more difficult schedule. Eight wins is reasonable, but nine wins isn't out of the picture at all.

Henry Bushnell: 7-5

The three-win drop-off really comes down to three things for me.

1. The pass rush will be less effective, and thus the defense as a whole won't be as good (though it won't be significantly worse).

2. Regression to the mean. This year's team played more like an 8-4 team or 7-5 team than a 10-2 team, so when looking ahead to next year, think of it as the former, not the latter.

3. The schedule. It's tough. Really tough. I'm sure others will go into more detail below.

Could the offense improve and push Northwestern to eight wins, or even nine? Well, it can't be much worse. But I'm very skeptical. Seven wins seems like a safe bet, with an easier 2017 schedule offering NU a chance to compete for the West two years from now.

Sam Brief: 8-4

Like many, the expectation of Clayton Thorson's development mixed with Justin Jackson's return should mark a new-and-improved offense in 2016. And the return of many key pieces on defense, such as Anthony Walker, can keep that unit relatively elite, in spite of important losses like Dean Lowry and Nick VanHoose. With that, however, comes a much tougher schedule. I'm saying they lose in Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus, with one more slip-up along the way. 8-4 isn't bad at all, and next year's team might even be better than this year's, but the daunting schedule will be hard to overcome.

Zach Pereles: 7-5

Northwestern's perfect win percentage in close games won't carry over to next year, and the Wildcats play Iowa in Iowa City, Michigan St. in East Lansing and Ohio St. in Columbus. The Wildcats also get Nebraska, which surely won't be as bad/unlucky as it was last year, and always-tough Wisconsin. Until Northwestern proves it can score points, I can't see them beating any of these teams. Maybe firing Mick McCall will change that, but a new offensive coordinator won't bring new talent at offensive lineman, wide receiver or perhaps even quarterback. Yes, the defense will still be good, but replacing two All-Big Ten linemen and an All-Big Ten cornerback isn't easy. The Wildcats look solid, but their record in close games will fall back toward .500 and their record will reflect that.

Zach Wingrove: 9-3

Many are predicting that next year's Northwestern team can be even better than this year's from a talent standpoint, which is a completely realistic possibility. Despite some key losses on defense, the Wildcats return Anthony Walker, Matt Harris and Godwin Igwebuike, all of which have the potential to be All-Big Ten first team players next year. If those key playmakers can stay healthy, the defense should remain as one of the conference's best next season. The offense is still a giant question mark, but there's plenty of young talent on that side of the ball that will have a chance to help the Wildcats' offense improve in 2016. I have Northwestern losing at Iowa and at Ohio State. Michigan State and Wisconsin will certainly be tough tests, but the Spartans are losing a ton of talent on both sides of the ball and will be very inexperienced next season, while the Badgers are going to have a new starting quarterback and have to travel to Evanston next season, a place they haven't won at since 1999. I think the Wildcats will win at least one of those two games to finish at 9-3.

Martin Oppegaard: 7-5

There's no other way to put it - Northwestern has a gauntlet of a schedule in 2016. If trips to Iowa City, East Lansing, and Columbus don't instill fear in your heart, I don't know what will. A late November trip to Minneapolis won't be easy and neither will the Wildcats' first four games, including three bowl winners in Western Michigan, Duke, and Nebraska. Add Wisconsin as another 2016 opponent that ended the season on a high note, something that the Wildcats failed to do. If the coaching staff remains the same and changes aren't made, I can't see this team being any better than it was this season. With that being said, I love the 2015 recruiting class and think it was vastly underused, particularly the wide receivers. Plenty of redshirt freshman should see well-deserved playing time next season which should be exciting, especially to see some new playmakers on offense. I think Northwestern slips up against Western Michigan to start the season, loses to either Nebraska or Wisconsin at home, and then falls to Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State, all on the road. The season is salvaged by winning three consecutive games to end the season, and then a Pinstripe Bowl victory.

Josh Burton: 7-5

When I was on Pound The Talk earlier this week, I predicted a conservative seven wins for Northwestern football next season and am sticking to it. The loss of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson on the defensive line will cause problems for the defense and, even with multiple standouts returning on that side of the ball, I think there's bound to be a bit of a letdown. Also, with a nine-game Big Ten schedule in 2016, the Wildcats will be playing a tougher schedule, which includes games against Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, all of which are on the road. On offense, there's just a bunch of unknowns outside of the steady running back position, so the passing game could be as bad next season as it was this one. Combine the unsure scoring attack with a defense primed for at least some regression, and you get a team that is pretty good but doesn't sniff double digit wins again.

Ian McCafferty: 8-4

I think Northwestern will be better next year, and  I also think they are going to win less games. The defense won't take too far of a step back, but it's still going to be tough to replace both Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. The offense will be much better, it'll be hard to be worse, if only because Thorson will have a whole offseason to get better. If they can pair even a decent pass attack with Justin Jackson then this team will be pretty good. The only problem is it's unclear how much the offense will actually improve, a huge improvement could mean 9 maybe even 10 wins again, but they'll need at least a slight improvement to get 7 or 8. The schedule makes it tough to believe it will be another record setting season, but this team is talented enough that they'll comfortably make their second straight bowl game.

Kevin Dukovic: 7-5

It’s unfair to expect Northwestern to win 10-plus games again next season. I’m in the "Northwestern (slightly) overachieved in 2015" corner. Don’t get me wrong, NU definitely earned all 10 victories this season, but this team just has too many weaknesses to expect to duplicate that success. Sure, the schedule is markedly more challenging in 2016. But what really concerns me is the offense. Even if Thorson takes that "sophomore leap" (and that’s a big if) the receivers are probably going to be just as unreliable if not worse, the offensive line will be shaky like it was this year and the play calling, well, it’ll be more of the same. With porous protection and subpar receivers Thorson will be forced to run the ball a ton, which means increased injury risk. (I’m worried he won’t make it through the whole season.) The defense should be great again next year, but the offense (even if Fitz makes a change) will remain this team’s Achilles heel.