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Ten bold predictions for Northwestern’s 2016 season

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Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With the regular season opener fast approaching, it’s time to make some predictions about how the season will go. You, the reader, will have to wait until Sunday for our season predictions, but for now, we’ll make some bold predictions for 2016, be it for individual players, position groups or the team as a whole. Zach Pereles and Will Ragatz take turns predicting the future:

Marcus McShepard leads Northwestern in receiving yards

I made this back on our prop bets Pound the Talk, and I’ll stand by it. McShepard has gotten a ton of run with the ones, and he has the best straight-line speed on the team. He might only catch 15 passes this year. But he’ll break at least three plays of 50-plus and become Northwestern’s bonafide deep threat by the end of the season. - Pereles

Northwestern takes down Michigan State in East Lansing

In 2015, the Spartans went 11-1 in the regular season, won the Big Ten Championship game, and made the College Football Playoff. And Northwestern is going to beat them this season. On the road. Michigan State is still loaded with talent but has a lot of questions to answer with the losses of QB Connor Cook, WR Aaron Burbridge, OT Jack Conklin and DT Shilique Calhoun. Northwestern’s defense will slightly outplay MSU’s in a low-scoring affair and Jack Mitchell will win it with a late 40-yard field goal. - Ragatz

Northwestern goes 4-0 in the month of September

The Wildcats have such a ridiculously hard October that many people are forgetting a pretty challenging opening month. PJ Fleck’s Western Michigan squad is no joke, Duke will present a challenge at the very least, and there are high expectations for Nebraska. Still, Northwestern will make it through the non-conference schedule undefeated and will squeak by mistake-prone Tommy Armstrong and his Nebraska teammates. That sets up for the showdown at Kinnick. - Pereles

Anthony Walker, Jr. leads Northwestern in interceptions

From being named to award watch lists to getting his own superhero marketing campaign, Walker, Jr.’s hype train is moving full steam ahead going into the 2016 season. The star junior linebacker is best known as a tackling machine, having led the Wildcats with 122 a season ago, but will add another element to his game this year. Walker Jr. has just three interceptions in two years (he also had several near-picks in 2015) but will boost that number to four or five this season, including a pick-six or two, to take the crown from Matt Harris. - Ragatz

Justin Jackson and Warren Long combine for 2500 all-purpose yards

Pat Fitzgerald admitted that he and his fellow coaches didn’t play Warren Long enough last year, and the stats back that up. I think he nears 1000 yards on the ground and Jackson surpasses it again. Add in 300 yards or so receiving between them, and the Wildcats have one of the most productive one-two punches in America. - Pereles

Clayton Thorson again throws more picks than touchdowns

Of all of our bold predictions thus far, here is the first one I hope doesn’t happen. Thorson will take some steps forward this year, increasing his completion percentage and passing yardage. However, he will also continue to display some of the poor decision-making that hurt him as a freshman. Northwestern will also score a lot of its touchdowns on the ground (several of which will come from Thorson) and Thorson will once again finish with something like eight passing TDs and nine interceptions. - Ragatz

Three Northwestern players make the All-Big Ten first team

This hasn’t happened at Northwestern since 2000, when Damien Anderson and Dwayne Missouri made first team for both the coaches and media teams and Billy Silva was voted a first-teamer by the media. Sixteen years later, the two easy choices are Walker, Jr. and Jackson. Joining them will be either Tyler Lancaster, Matt Harris or Godwin Igwebuike. - Pereles

Joe Gaziano takes Xavier Washington’s starting DE spot

There are several position groups in which redshirt freshmen will have an opportunity to play a lot this season, including defensive end. Gaziano, who has a solid size advantage over Washington, will outperform him early in the season and be starting opposite Ifeadi Odenigbo by Week 8. - Ragatz

Jack Mitchell hits three game-winners this year and ups his field goal percentage to 80

There aren’t many kickers in the nation better than Jack Mitchell in the clutch. There are a lot of kickers better than Jack Mitchell not in the clutch. That changes this year. Mitchell quit baseball to focus on kicking this offseason, and it’ll show. He’ll continue his clutch ways—when you play low-scoring, ground-and-pound football, you’ll have a lot of close games, giving him plenty of opportunities—and be a much better kicker overall, too.

Northwestern wins the Big Ten West

What’s late August good for if not possibly-misguided optimism about one’s football teams? Given Northwestern’s tougher 2016 schedule and the fact that it required a decent amount of luck to reach 10 wins last season, the media isn’t too high on the Wildcats’ chances of winning their division this season. That’s a mistake. Iowa is going to take a major step back from last year’s undefeated regular season and Northwestern has already proven it can beat Nebraska and Wisconsin. Pat Fitzgerald’s team will use a 9-3 season full of close victories to reach the conference championship game in Indianapolis for the first time ever. - Ragatz