With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
We start with the opening opponent, Western Michigan, which will pay Evanston a visit to kick off the season.
Returning Starters: 14 (eight offensive, six defensive)
Returning Experience: 70%
2015 Record: 8-5 (6-2 MAC)
Coach: PJ Fleck, 3rd year (17-21)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 53rd
2015 S&P+ Offense: 25th
2015 S&P+ Defense: 89th
Two years after going 1-11, Fleck pieced together his second-straight 8-5 season at Western Michigan. The Broncos started off 1-3 with a ridiculously tough schedule that included Michigan State in Week 1 and Ohio State in Week 4. The team also played its worst game of the year in a Week 2 blowout loss to Georgia Southern. But then the team rattled off five straight MAC wins, scoring over 35 points in each game and surpassing 50 twice. The Broncos lost to two of the MAC’s best back-to-back (Bowling Green and Northern Illinois) but rebounded to beat Toledo in the regular season finale and then Middle Tennessee in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.
This spread offense is very, very impressive and should continue to be so in 2016. The Broncos averaged 36 points per game in 2015 and return senior signal caller Zach Terrell, who threw for 29 touchdowns and just nine interceptions last year. Next to him is sophomore Jamauri Bogan, who ran for over 1000 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Bogan, a 5-foot-7 speedster, will split time with a much bigger power back Jarvion Franklin (6-foot, 228 pounds) as well as LeVante Bellamy.
Out wide, the Broncos suffer perhaps their biggest loss. Daniel Braverman, a seventh-round pick by the Chicago Bears, caught 109 passes for over 1300 yards last year. But there’s plenty of talent to help replace him, starting with Corey Davis, who had 91 catches and over 1400 yards last year. Davis stands 6-foot-3 and is regarded as one of the top senior wide receivers in the nation. Behind Davis, though, there are no proven players. Michael Henry, a senior and last year’s No. 3 wide receiver, will need to step up.
The offensive line was the only area of the offense that really struggled; Terrell took 31 sacks, though some were his fault. When you run a spread offense, you better have five guys who can block, and Fleck hopes that his four returning starters can improve from last year. The one loss, though, is a big one: all-MAC tackle Willie Beavers.
The defensive line was an issue for defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham’s bunch last year. Outside of end Keion Adams (10.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks), the line only recorded 7.0 sacks, and 3.5 of those are gone. The team was very good against the run, but it loses run-stuffer Cleveland Smith as well as end Jarrell McKinney. If the team can stop the run as well as well as it did last year — a tall task for sure — and get some sort of pass rush outside of Adams, it could be a very good unit. But there are certainly questions to be answered.
Caleb Bailey returns to lead an uncertain linebacker crew. SAM linebacker Austin Lewis is gone as is MIKE Grant DePalma. Junior Robert Spillane should step into the MIKE role, but SAM remains undetermined. It’s an unproven group.
The Broncos lose standout safety Rontavious Atkins and corner Ronald Zamort but have a decent amount of depth. Safety Asantay Brown and corner Darius Phillips (team-leading five interceptions in 2015) return to starting roles, and Iowa transfer Malik Rucker could earn a spot opposite Phillips. It’s an ultra-aggressive secondary that gave up — but also came up with — a lot of big plays last year.
Three players to know
QB Zach Terrell - Terrell can really sling it, doesn’t throw many interceptions, and has full command of the playbook thanks to significant action in each of his three seasons. He completes over two-thirds of his passes and rarely throws interceptions. He’s willing to step up and make a throw, risking getting clobbered to do so. He has to stay upright, but he can give defenses fits.
WR Corey Davis - As mentioned above, Davis is a top NFL prospect and has a frame that can help him win one-on-one battles and jump balls. He has good straight-line speed and is a big play threat, but he needs to be more efficient play-in and play-out. Northwestern struggled with a big MAC receiver last year in Ball State’s Jordan Williams.
CB Darius Phillips - Phillips is ultra-aggressive and very, very good with the ball in his hands. He’s an explosive kick returner who brought a kick back for a touchdown against Michigan State last year.
Behind enemy lines
Brandon Fitzsimons of SB Nation’s MAC blog, Hustle Belt, takes our questions:
Best case scenario
13-0 and the G5 bid. Hear me out before you call me crazy. The Broncos have a favorable non-conference schedule this year, substituting Michigan State and Ohio State last year with Northwestern and Illinois this year. They also get Georgia Southern at home, as well as perennial MAC powers Toledo and NIU at Waldo. All things considered, this is the best schedule the Broncos have had in a while with regards to the talent on the roster. Spring an upset at Ryan Field, hold your own in the MAC, and who knows? Obviously, this also includes WMU's first trip to the MAC Championship Game since it moved to Detroit just over a decade ago, and their first MAC Championship since 1988. This would be the absolute best case scenario, and not outside the realm of possibility (unlike last year).
Worst case scenario
Daniel Braverman is sorely missed, the line falls apart without Willie Beavers, and the defense never clicks. The Broncos go 1-3 in their non-conference schedule (again), and cannot beat any of the top MAC West teams. Additionally, they drop a crossover game to Akron (who they've won five of the last six meetings with, save for this). Western Michigan is 5-7 and not eligible for a bowl game.
Prediction for WMU at Northwestern
I have the Wildcats squeaking out a win here at 27-24. This should be a great game. WMU has to break in a new WR to line up opposite Corey Davis. The last time the Wildcats saw CD, he did this. He's only gotten better since then, and Pat Fitzgerald will have a long day ahead of him getting his secondary to cover him with Zach Terrell throwing the ball. Northwestern didn't see him three years ago in favor of senior Tyler VanTubbergen, but Terrell has proven to be the better option, with excellent efficiency in the pass game. WMU's run game is also strong, but will be breaking in a new LT, so that'll be something to watch. However, I think the Wildcats' offense is just good enough to capitalize on three-and-outs and nab a couple of scores.
The Broncos should be very good this year. Fleck has three straight top recruiting classes in the MAC, and the talent is really starting to show its depth. Terrell and Davis will be must-see TV throughout the season, as Davis has a chance to become one of, if not THE most prolific wide-out in FBS history. The comfortable schedule (ex: Georgia Southern loses some talent while also losing the humid home-field advantage) really sets the Broncos up for a MAC Championship or Bust season. They should roll through the non-conference slate at 3-1, and then kick off the MAC slate with a bang (NIU and CMU up first). I doubt they get through the MAC unscathed, but a 10-2 season with a MAC West Title is likely. The East Champ will likely be less talented than whoever escapes the West, so add another win to make it 11-2 with a MAC Championship and a trip to lovely Mobile, Alabama for the GoDaddy Bowl! (gotta love the MAC bowl ties)
Do not underestimate Fleck’s squad. One of the youngest coaches in Division I football, Fleck turned WMU into a MAC title challenger in just three years and is an absolute recruiting whiz. While the spread offense is definitely of concern, Northwestern showed the ability to stop Duke’s spread attack last year in non-con play. Northwestern’s relatively inexperienced depth in the secondary could be troublesome. But as we saw last year, if you can’t stop the run, you’ll have trouble beating Northwestern, and the Broncos lose their best run stopper from last year. This should be a good battle of contrasting styles.
Date: Sep. 3
Time: 11 a.m. CT
Betting line: Northwestern -6 1/2