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Wildcat Shootaround: How do we adjust our season expectations through five weeks?

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The Wildcats started out much slower than we thought they would, but a win over Iowa provides hope.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season, nearly all of our staffers made their prediction for how the season would go. Most of us predicted another year with a winning record, and several of us had the Wildcats contending for the Big Ten West.

But then Northwestern opened the season with two deflating losses. It’s gotten better since, with wins over academic rival Duke and actual football rival Iowa, but to say the Wildcats’ 2-3 record is anything near what we expected would be simply false. Having said that, we have hit the bye week and can now readjust our expectations for the year. Here’s how our staffers think it will play out:

Zach Pereles:

Original prediction: 8-4 (5-4)

New prediction: 6-6 (5-4)

I’ll admit that spending an entire offseason around this program may have inflated my expectations a bit, and after the back-to-back losses to open the season, I was afraid this team would legitimately win two or three games. But since, the Wildcats have played some inspired football, taking care of Duke in matter-of-fact fashion and then, two weeks later, bouncing back from a disappointing effort against a very good Nebraska team to beat a not-so-great Iowa. I still think the Wildcats get one win we wouldn’t expect them to pull out (looking at you, Michigan State), but also drop one they probably shouldn’t (looking at you, Indiana and Minnesota). The Wildcats still play a lot of games in which the line will be within a score. How they fare in those close games will be the key determinant, and given Pat Fitzgerald’s history, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Zach Wingrove:

Original prediction: 7-5 (4-5)

New prediction: 6-6 (5-4)

After seeing Western Michigan start out 5-0 and just outside the top 25 this week, I’m convinced that Northwestern’s only bad loss this season was against Illinois State. On the offensive side of the ball, Clayton Thorson is beginning to look more comfortable and Austin Carr has exceeded everyone’s expectations. If Thorson can rope together a few consistent performances, it will also start to open up the running game for Justin Jackson. I think Northwestern will beat Illinois and Purdue for sure and win two of three against Indiana, Michigan State and Minnesota. I have the games against Wisconsin and Ohio State as probable losses, but this team has surprised us before (in good ways and bad), so I won’t put anything past the Wildcats.

Rob Schaefer:

Original prediction: 7-5 (4-5)

New prediction: 6-6 (5-4)

The Iowa win is obviously encouraging, especially going into a bye week, and had that game gone as poorly as I thought it would, I’d probably have Northwestern down in the four-to-five win range instead of six. But it didn’t, and the offense flashed legitimate potential in victory. All of a sudden the oft-maligned Northwestern offense that has fans calling for Mick McCall’s head has the Big Ten leader in rushing yards and receiving yards. The worst is still yet to come, though, with contests against Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin looming on the horizon (not to mention Indiana, who knocked off the No. 17 Spartans Saturday). If NU builds on its offensive outburst in Iowa City and the defensive line’s resurgence continues, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the Wildcats go 4-3 down the stretch - especially given that they close the season with Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois.

Sam Brief:

Original prediction: 8-4 (5-4)

New prediction: 6-6 (5-4)

There’s reason to be excited after the Iowa win—four touchdowns from Clayton Thorson, three from Austin Carr, 171 yards from Justin Jackson and four sacks from Ifeadi Odenigbo. Those numbers are encouraging, and they stand out. But we have to keep in mind that beating Iowa in 2016 isn’t the same as beating Iowa in 2015. The Hawkeyes lost to North Dakota State of the FCS and then barely beat Rutgers in New Jersey. Frankly, Northwestern is much more even with Iowa than we thought. However, we also saw the potential this team has. Carr has emerged as the Big Ten’s top wideout and Jackson had a rebirth in Iowa City. More than that, Northwestern’s tattered run defense allowed just 79 yards to a run-heavy Iowa team. If they keep that rolling, they can win some games. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, trips to East Lansing and Columbus are looming, as is a date with Wisconsin at home. I’ll chalk those three games as losses, with Indiana and their final three games as wins. Northwestern squeezes into a bowl game.

Caleb Friedman

Original prediction: 7-5 (4-5)

New prediction: 5-7 (4-5)

The Iowa win was undoubtedly huge for Northwestern, but it remains to be seen how good the Hawkeyes really are. And while the play of the offensive line and defensive front seven was mostly strong in Iowa City, nothing I’ve seen from the team so far this season has indicated any future consistency (except for Austin Carr). Depth is still a concern for the Wildcats as we get later into the season, and the schedule does not get easier. Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin will all be difficult opponents, and games against Indiana and Minnesota aren’t gimmes. The up-and-down season will continue, and questions will surround the program after the Cats’ narrowly miss a bowl game.

Josh Burton:

Original prediction: 7-5 (4-5)

New prediction: 6-6 (5-4)

I’m not changing my prediction too much, mostly because the Wildcats still have very winnable games against Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois left. Northwestern probably could challenge Michigan State, but, in all likelihood, has no chance against the Buckeyes. Prior to the season, I thought the non-conference schedule would be a breeze for Northwestern and that the Big Ten slate of games would cause major problems. Of course, it hasn’t turned out that way so far. However, one of my reasons for my optimism that the Wildcats will become bowl-eligible is the emergence of Austin Carr as a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, and he could carry NU to some big wins down the stretch.

Will Ragatz

Original prediction: 9-3 (6-3)

New prediction: 7-5 (6-3)

Okay, so I missed on the WMU and Illinois State games. BUT I’M NOT BACKING DOWN NOW. Northwestern is still going to go 6-3 in the Big Ten, beating either Michigan State or Wisconsin and everyone else other than the NFL factory in Columbus. This offense can seriously move the ball and the defense is only going to get better.