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Inside NU’s Northwestern football season predictions for 2016

It’s finally back!

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We’ve made it! The offseason’s long gone and the preseason wraps up today, as Monday kicks off the first day of the first gameweek of 2016. Even if they aren’t necessarily coming from the media, the expectations surrounding the Wildcats in 2016 are high. A 10-win season, returning stars on both sides of the ball and a physically-gifted quarterback coming off his first full offseason will do that. Here’s how our staff sees the 2016 season playing out.

Zach Pereles (@zach_pereles) — 8-4 (5-4)

I’m pretty high on this team going into the season. The weakest part of the team (the offense) should be significantly better at football’s most important position, as well as up front and out wide, considering the moves the team made this offseason to beef up the receiving corps. The running back room is still elite. Defensively, the team takes a slight step back, but when you have an All-American in the middle as Northwestern does, the losses won’t be too great to overcome. The schedule is a legitimate cause for concern, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen this offseason to believe this iteration of the Wildcats can contend in the B1G West and maybe—with some luck—get close to the 10-win mark of 2015.

Sam Brief (@sambrief) — 8-4 (5-4)

Just because I don’t have them at 10 wins this year doesn’t mean Northwestern isn’t going to improve from last year. They should be better—Justin Jackson is on pace be even more effective, and Warren Long compliments him well. I expect Clayton Thorson to take a huge leap from his freshman year. Led by preseason All-American Anthony Walker, the defense was a top-10 unit last year. And in spite of the injury to Keith Watkins II, defense represents the backbone, identity and strength of this squad. Of course, the wide receiving corps and tougher schedule form the downfalls of this year’s team—which is why I have them losing 4 games (to Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin). At its best, Northwestern contends for a Big Ten West and Big Ten title. Thorson is a stud in his second year, Jackson is at a near-Heisman level, the wide receivers are surprisingly effective and the defense is top-5 nationwide with Walker asserting himself as a legit NFL first-round pick. At its worst, Thorson doesn’t improve, Jackson plateaus, the wide receivers disappoint and the defense shows holes thanks to some key losses. I predict Northwestern lands somewhere in the middle, and 8-4 (5-4) seems just about right.

Tristan Jung (@tristan1815) — 7-5 (4-5)

In honor of late head coach Dennis Green, I think the 2015-16 WILDCATS ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE! AND OTHER TEAMS LET THEM OFF THE HOOK! Northwestern was a very solid defensive football team that survived a bevy of close games last year. 2016 looks to be similar on both sides of the ball, so the question will come down to whether Northwestern can go 5-0 in one possession games again. Northwestern probably won’t do that, even with Fitzgerald’s stellar record in close games. In 2014, the team went 2-4 in one possession games. It’s fair to project that Northwestern will regress to about average in one possession games, which drops them to around 7-5. Can Northwestern replace its lost talent on defense while simultaneously developing a better offense so that close games can be avoided? Yes, but there are too many question marks to guarantee anything. This team will be good next year, but the record will probably belie what the true talent of this group really is. The schedule is too tough, the breaks cannot continue to go Northwestern’s way, and there will be a slight drop-off in terms of talent.

Caleb Friedman (@calebfriedman) prediction: 7-5 (4-5)

After a magical 2015, the ‘Cats will come back to Earth and face the reality of a tougher schedule this season. But don’t get me wrong, this team is still good. While last year’s team was probably worse than its record, this year’s team will be better than its record will indicate. Anthony Walker, Matt Harris, Tyler Lancaster and Godwin Igwebuike will keep the defense stout, even amidst the losses of DEs Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Walker is incredible at covering up others’ mistakes, but not even he will be able to completely make up for the lost production from the DEs, so the defense will take a slight step back. Offensively, Justin Jackson will remain one of the nation’s top backs, but even an improved Clayton Thorson will be somewhat inconsistent throwing the ball, making it tough for the offense to sustain drives. Looking at the schedule, the three non-conference games and the Purdue and Illinois games should be wins (though Western Michigan is no slouch in the opener). NU will take down two out of Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and drop all of the October road games. So, even though some of last year’s breaks don’t go NU’s way, the ‘Cats will still make a bowl game fairly comfortably.

Ian McCafferty (@Itmccaf52) — 10-2 (7-2)

I’d like to start this prediction off with a quick anecdote. Back during 2014, my freshman year, (before I wrote for InsideNU), I was a part of WNURSports’ weekly Northwestern pick’em article where I predicted the outcome of every game. Once the season was over I had gone a spectacular 1-11 (Purdue was the one win). I suppose this is just my way of saying take everything I’m about to say with a grain of salt, I am highly irrational, and my predictions are wrong about 99% of the time. That being said, ALL ABOARD THE 10-WIN TRAIN, NEXT STOP INDIANAPOLIS. Honestly I may just be spending too much time around Pat Fitzgerald, but I genuinely believe that this team can win 9-10 games this year. Am I insane? Yeah, probably. But I think the Wildcats start the season 4-0 and end the season 3-0. It’s just all going to come down to what they do in the Iowa-Wisconsin stretch. I think they steal one of the the Iowa/Michigan St./Ohio St. games, and they eke out the toss ups that are Indiana and Wisconsin. Overall, the defense drops a bit early on, but manages to coalesce later on in the season and finishes just a tick below last year’s squad. They lose talent, but also return Anthony Walker, Tyler Lancaster and Nate Hall among others. The offense is much improved as a passing game actually exists and Justin Jackson reaps the benefits. It doesn’t have to be 2000 Northwestern levels, but almost anything would be an improvement and help out the entire team. Due to how the Big Ten West looks this year, Northwestern will be in the division title hunt even if it drops a couple more games, but with 10 wins the Wildcats run away with the division and take on Michigan in Indianapolis.

Josh Rosenblat (@JMRosenblat) — 8-4 (5-4)

I’m bullish on Northwestern, but I shouldn’t be. On paper, the defense looks just as talented, if not more talented than last year. But it will miss a starting cornerback and both starting outside pass-rushers. On offense, Clayton Thorson has to improve, right? If not, Matt Alviti should finally be ready to play, right? Northwestern’s margin for error, like last year, is just so darn small with a strong defense and offense that projects to little outside a persistent run game. Last year the team had few significant injuries and won a few games in which it was largely outplayed. And, for a simple reason, I think Northwestern can do it all again. Northwestern has not had top-end talent on its roster like this in years. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better linebacker-safety-corner trio in the Big Ten than Anthony Walker, Godwin Igwebuike and Matt Harris. Justin Jackson and Warren Long are a good enough duo to keep an otherwise-bad offense afloat. It won’t be pretty, but eight regular-season should be the standard this season for Northwestern.

Rob Schaefer (RobSchaefer_4) — 7-5 (4-5)

For a team coming off a 10-win season and returning a vast majority of offensive and defensive starters, the 2016 season seems to have a dark cloud floating over it for Northwestern. Maybe it’s Keith Watkins going down before the season’s first snap. Maybe it’s the seemingly inevitable regression to the mean this team can probably expect after over-achieving to such a degree last year. Maybe it’s the unfavorable statistical forecast made by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly in his preseason power rankings. Whatever it is, something doesn’t feel right. Justin Jackson and Warren Long will do their part to carry the run game, but this Wildcat offense isn’t scaring anyone without a reliable passing attack, especially after losing its top receiving threat from a year ago. The defense should again be one of the best in the nation, but there are even question marks on that side of the ball with key contributors graduating out (VanHoose, Lowry, etc) and unknown quantities being forced into big-time roles. I still see Northwestern being an above-.500 level football team and it seems like my prediction leans more towards the pessimistic end of the spectrum compared to those above me. That probably bodes well. But before I start predicting wins over teams like Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, or even an Indiana, there are some serious questions this team needs to answer. Only time will tell if those answers are satisfactory.

Josh Burton (@josh_burton1) — 7-5 (5-4)

After severely outperforming expectations—and their own statistical indicators—it’s only rational to expect a bit of a downturn for the Wildcats in 2016. Lowry and Vitale, along with other key contributors that have since graduated, are gone, leaving Northwestern without established leaders in the locker room and standouts at their respective positions. There’s also the season-ending injury to Watkins which hurts an already thin secondary corps. Add in the tougher schedule—look at October—and an unproven wide receiving corps, and it appears as if things might not be as easy for the Wildcats in this season as they were in 2015. Anthony Walker anchoring the defense is obviously a good thing, but the uncertainties on the defensive line and in the secondary suggest that the defense—which was otherworldly last year—could take a major step back. That’s why I’m predicting fewer wins, but not enough of a drop off that could cause Northwestern to miss a bowl.

Zach Wingrove (@zachwingrove) — 7-5 (4-5)

There’s a lot to be excited about heading into this season for Northwestern, but there are also many question marks that make it hard for me to project the Wildcats finishing with any more than seven wins. The biggest uncertainty that I’m worried about is, as Caleb mentioned, the offense’s ability to sustain drives and put points on the board. With a full season under his belt, Clayton Thorson should improve from last season, and the addition of talented athletes at the receiver position such as Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard will hopefully lead to Northwestern becoming less one-dimensional on offense this season. However, if the defense regresses from last season—which I expect it to—that adds even more pressure on the offense to bring a level of consistency week-in and week-out that we just haven’t seen yet, and I think this could lead to Northwestern dropping some games to teams it beat last year. Although I’m very worried about what will happen in the opener against Western Michigan, if the game turns into a shootout, I’m cautiously picking the Wildcats to go 3-0 in non-conference play and then stumble at the start of Big Ten play with three straight losses to Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan State. From there I see Northwestern going 4-2 with losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin and finishing near the middle of the pack in the Big Ten but still in position to make a bowl game.

Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) — 9-3 (6-3)

For almost any team without the recruiting power of Ohio State and Alabama, losing four accomplished defensive starters to graduation and then having one of its replacements get injured before the season would be a major cause of concern. It says a lot about the talent on this Northwestern defense that that’s not the case. I think the Wildcats’ defense will be even better this year, led by superhuman Anthony Walker Jr. and a gang of underrated sidekicks in Matt Harris, Godwin Igwebuike and Tyler Lancaster. It’s a deep, athletic unit that will give Northwestern a chance to win all nine of its games against non-elite (Iowa, MSU, OSU) competition. The question, of course, is can Clayton Thorson and the offense sustain enough scoring drives to get it done? I think so. Thorson has a full season and offseason of starting experience under his belt and should be able to find Austin Carr and Solomon Vault often enough to keep defensive coordinators from stacking eight in the box against Justin Jackson. Jackson will continue to be incredibly effective as a junior, some freshman wide receiver will have a surprising breakout year and Jack Mitchell will help Northwestern win a lot of close games. Please don’t look back at this in January.

Martin Oppegaard (@OppegaardMartin) — 11-1 (7-1)

Somebody had to do this. I’m tired of hearing about how hard the schedule is, last season wasn’t easy and Northwestern still pulled out 10 wins. This is going to be a much better team. The jump between freshman and sophomore year is huge for a starting quarterback and Clayton Thorson will be much more consistent than he was last year. Justin Jackson is the leading returning running back in the Big Ten, and with Warren Long and John Moten behind him, they form the best running back corps in the conference. There’s simply too much talent at the wide receiver position to not see at least two guys breakout, and the defense’s depth will be challenged but I fully trust Mike Hankwitz to play the right cards. As for the one loss? Maybe Ohio State, but this is the year you want to play the Buckeyes. They return just four offensive starters and four on the defensive side. Michigan State is losing a lot as well, including its career wins leader Connor Cook. Last time Northwestern went into East Lansing they came out with a 23-20 victory and contained Le’Veon Bell. Iowa will be a challenge, but if the late 2000’s told us anything about Northwestern football, it’s that Fitz knows how to win at Kinnick. This is going to be an exciting year for Northwestern, and barring significant injuries, the Wildcats will be heading to Indianapolis.

So those are our predictions for the season. But what about you? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below.