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The future of Northwestern football: Five predictions for the next five years

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The next five years look promising for the Wildcats. What will they look like?

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Where will Northwestern football be in five years?

As we learned last week, Pat Fitzgerald will almost certainly still be the coach of Northwestern, signing a new deal that confirms him through 2026. As long as Fitzgerald’s teams do not completely implode over this time period, he will be here indefinitely. Thus, our speculation about Northwestern football must be within the framework of this coaching staff stretching to the end of time.

Prediction 1: Northwestern will play in its first Big Ten Championship Game in the next five years.

It has to happen sometime, right? Wisconsin has to be bad at some point, right? Northwestern has been competitive with Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota throughout the last three years. If Thorson stays for two more years, Northwestern surely has a shot to win the West in both seasons. Beyond that, the future is less clear, but Northwestern might have a second window open in 2019 or 2020 depending on how the next few years pan out.

Whatever the case, I’m hopeful and optimistic that Northwestern will win the Big Ten West and play in its first conference championship game sometime in the next five years. Crazier things have happened.

This is the most controversial take in the piece, so I want some public feedback:

Poll

Will Northwestern play in a Big Ten Football Championship Game in the next 5 years?

This poll is closed

  • 78%
    Yes
    (446 votes)
  • 21%
    No
    (121 votes)
567 votes total Vote Now

Prediction 2: Northwestern’s defensive line will be the signature position group on the team.

Northwestern has been loading up on defensive line recruits throughout the last three seasons. Joe Gaziano, Sam Miller, Earnest Brown IV and Trevor Kent should provide Northwestern with a very solid defensive line for the next three to four years. Even more importantly, they should establish a strong foundation for Northwestern’s defensive line for years to come.

Just as Northwestern has developed a stable of excellent running backs behind Justin Jackson, this recruiting push should help it do the same on the defensive line. Northwestern has already gotten a commitment from Devin O’Rourke, a four-star defensive end in the Class of 2018. If Northwestern continues to emphasize recruiting four-star or high three-star defensive linemen, this position will become a key strength for the team moving forward.

Prediction 3: The offense will probably be average.

Northwestern’s five-year average ranking in offensive S&P is (drumroll) 74th. That’s not great. While Pat Fitzgerald has been able to create some decent offenses during his tenure (2011 comes to mind), he hasn’t had a truly great unit since the “Mick McCall Era” began.

“You take great pride in something that you’re building...you’re doing it with your staff, doing it with those that have been here before us and the guys that we currently have,” Fitzgerald said at his press conference last week. Staff and player continuity is a cornerstone of Fitzgerald’s philosophy, and therefore it’s hard to imagine a major shakeup happening. Northwestern had a bottom-tier offense for 2.5 seasons and there was barely a hint of changing the offensive coordinators, offensive line coach, or anything at all. So yes, what I’m implying is that the #FIREMCCALL-ers will still be tweeting displeasure in 2022 unless there is some unforeseen circumstance.

It’s not all bad, though. I believe the offense will continue to improve in the short-term in NFL-hopeful Clayton Thorson’s third year. After Thorson leaves, however, the future is murky. Given how the first two years of Thorson’s tenure went, it’s hard to imagine the coaching staff developing a revolutionary and explosive offensive system around Aidan Smith, Andrew Marty or Jason Whittaker, Thorson’s prospective successors. Defense still projects as the long-term strength of this team.

Prediction 4: Northwestern will be better than Illinois.

All Illinois football wants after six turbulent years is some stability. The school appears to be committed to Lovie Smith for the long haul, and I’m sure they were mostly fine with Illinois’ 3-9 season as a transition year. However, after a decent showing in the Class of 2017, Illinois is getting crushed in in-state recruiting for 2018 and it remains to be seen if Smith can be trusted as a college recruiter. Ticket sales are up and people are optimistic, but it’s hard to bet against Pat Fitzgerald’s decade-long project at Northwestern.

Lovie Smith’s selling pitch will be refined over the next few years, but right now Illinois is far behind Northwestern in terms of program health. While college football is a fickle business and Illinois could steal the HAT once or twice, I don’t see Illinois being better than Northwestern over the next five years. At worst, they will be on equal footing.

Prediction 5: Northwestern’s new Lakeside Athletic Complex probably won’t make much of a difference

Northwestern has gone all-in on its lakefront property, spending millions of dollars on a new business school and a spectacular new practice facility. This is, of course, great for the program and any player who has had to repeatedly take the bus to Ryan Field to work out. The extra space is huge for the non-revenue sports as well, but its impact on actual football success is yet to be seen.

We must keep in mind that Northwestern’s new facilities were long overdue for a serious football program. The new developments bring Northwestern up to par with the rest of the country, but I don’t think it will be a huge difference maker in recruiting or even on-field success. Northwestern’s recruiting pitch will always be difficult, and while it is removing a liability by improving the facilities, it’s not like the buildings are substantially better than those at Michigan, Penn State or Wisconsin.

Even if the Lakeside Facilities are a positive for the program, the trend of Northwestern players not being taken in the high rounds of the NFL Draft will not be alleviated. The massive investment into the new athletics complex is great for Northwestern, but its impact in football will almost certainly be overstated in the next few years.