The weeks leading up to football season are always a time of looking forward to the impending season with hope and optimism. However, it also a good time to temper expectations, which is exactly what we’re going to do today. It’s time to embrace our Northwestern fandom and be realistic about the upcoming season.
Here are five reasons to be pessimistic about the 2016 campaign.
You’ve heard a lot about Northwestern’s schedule in the month of October during our preparation for the season and that’s no coincidence, it’s really difficult. The Wildcats play the reigning Big Ten West Champions (Iowa), the reigning Big Ten Champions (Michigan State), the 2014 National Champs (Ohio State) and Indiana all in a single month. The first three of those listed are on the road.
Iowa has reversed the trend and have had Northwestern’s number the past three years. Kinnick Stadium is guaranteed to be a hostile environment, much like East Lansing will be when Northwestern pays a visit to Michigan State. The Spartans haven’t played the Wildcats since 2013 (where they won 30-6 at Ryan Field) and Mark Dantonio’s group is always an inspired bunch. Indiana should have yet another explosive offense under Kevin Wilson and a shootout would not favor this Northwestern team. Ohio State is Ohio State, a team the Wildcats haven’t beaten since 2004. Northwestern’s last win in The Horseshoe was gulp in 1971, three years before head coach Pat Fitzgerald was born. There’s a pretty good chance that Northwestern goes 1-3, or even winless over this stretch. Of those four games, the team will only be favored against Indiana.
2. Wide Receiver Uncertainty
Who is Clayton Thorson going to throw to? That was one of the team’s biggest problem last season, and until we actually see players physically catching passes in game, it still is. A matchup against Western Michigan is looming one week away and we still don’t definitively know who the second receiver on the team is. Austin Carr will be number one and Solomon Vault will hold things down inside along with Marcus McShepherd (who can stretch the field on the outside as well), but both guys are still adjusting to their new position. On top of that, there are plenty of questions regarding the second outside receiver. Right now it’s between redshirt freshman Charlie Fessler and sophomore Flynn Nagel. Only the latter saw action last year before a season-ending injury. They might be a big improvement over last year, or we might see growing pains.
Honestly, we may see every single scholarship wide receiver on the field at some point against Western Michigan. That’s the level of uncertainty surrounding this position. We know Fitz doesn’t like to burn his freshmen’s redshirts, but he will if he has to. Riley Lees, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, and Ben Skowronek are all intriguing yet unproven options. In 2015, Northwestern receivers had the highest drop rate ever under Pat Fitzgerald, and if that trend continues, it’s going to be a rough year for Clayton Thorson and the offense.
3. Defensive Turnover
Northwestern’s 2015 defense was otherworldly. Ranked fifth in the nation in defense S&P+ ratings, the unit was led by Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson up front, All-American Anthony Walker up the middle and the Sky Team in the back. The only problem is that a lot of the difference makers from last season are gone. Lowry, Gibson, corner Nick VanHoose, safety Traveon Henry and linebacker Drew Smith have left some big shoes to fill for this defense. Five starters is a lot of turnover. Does Northwestern have the depth to replace the 12 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss that Lowry and Gibson contributed? What about the 5 interceptions and 17 pass breakups from VanHoose and Henry?
Now, with the injury to number two corner Keith Watkins II, the depth issue is only heightened. Unproven sophomore Montre Hartage will have to step in opposite Matt Harris, and Hartage will certainly get tested a lot. Redshirt freshmen Alonzo Mayo and Trae Williams will be thrown into the fire, and true freshman Roderick Campbell could see the field as a nickel corner. It will be very hard to fill the void left by current NFLers Lowry and Gibson, but Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington will need to show improved consistency in the trenches. Redshirt freshmen Joe Gaziano and Trent Goens will have to contribute as well. Replicating the success of the 2015 defense essentially hinges on guys who were role players or non-factors last year stepping up. If that doesn’t happen or another impact player like Watkins II goes down with an injury, the defense will predictably drop off.
4. Lack of B1G Home Games
In 2015, Northwestern only had three Big Ten road games (because Soldier Field doesn’t count; sorry Illinois) and zero consecutive games on the road. This year, the Wildcats have five road games in eight weeks, including trips to Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus. Ross-Ade Stadium hasn’t struck fear into the hearts of opponents in a long time, but SB Nation guru Bill Connelly writes that Purdue has a 39% win probability against Northwestern. To put that into perspective, Northwestern is being given a 38% win probability when they travel to TCF Bank Stadium to take on Minnesota in mid-November. That’s daunting.
Sandwiched between all those road games is a bye, homecoming against Indiana, and Wisconsin. To make matters worse, two of Northwestern’s home games (Nebraska and Wisconsin) will seem like a neutral environment with the amount of red in the stands. In fairness, the Wildcats walked out of both Lincoln and Madison with huge wins in 2015, and there was nothing neutral about either of those environments. At the very least, we know Thorson’s going to get a lot of use out of his silent count this year.
5. The Ghost of 2013
We’ve seen this show somewhere before: Northwestern coming off a 10-win season with tons of momentum. The Wildcats play Western Michigan in non-conference, Iowa at Kinnick and both Michigan St. and Ohio State. No, I’m not talking about 2016, I’m describing the exact situation heading into 2013. Even the non-conference games line up.
Northwestern took care of Western Michigan with ease (they play Western Michigan again in 2016), cruised past FCS Maine (Illinois State in 2016), beat fellow academically-strong counterpart in 2013 Cal (Duke in 2016) and handled a solid Syracuse team a year after beating them by one-point at Syracuse (Northwestern beat Nebraska in Lincoln by just two). The 2013 team started the year 4-0. College Gameday came to Evanston. Undefeated and top-5 Ohio State came to town. You know the rest of the story.
It’s unlikely that Northwestern will repeat the spectacular failure that was the 2013 season, but it’s not impossible. History always has a way of repeating itself. Tough schedule, some injuries and suddenly the memories might start flooding back.
And who knows. Jordan Westerkamp does still play for Nebraska.