Is it Saturday yet? No? Well, that’s just enough time for some final prognostications. We’ve already offered a poll for you to predict Northwestern’s 2017 record (the winner: 9-3). Meanwhile, the staff at Inside NU has compiled its final predictions for the 2017 season.
Davis Rich— 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Beyond blue-blood programs like Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida State, college football success is often defined by experience. Players who lack the physical tools of five-star recruits need thousands of reps to adjust to the speed of the game, and the teams with well-groomed veterans can expect less volatile play, especially at the beginning of the season. Here’s where Northwestern has a distinct advantage in 2017. The Wildcats are one of three Big Ten teams ranked in the top 30 in returning production by Bill Connelly.
Moreover, six of Northwestern’s 2017 Big Ten opponents are ranked lower than 85th, including programs like Michigan State, Nebraska, and Iowa. In toss-up games, teams who have been through adversity together have an advantage, and Northwestern has a unique opportunity to capitalize on that advantage in 2017. Sure, questions surrounding the front seven and the offensive line loom. But the Wildcats have one of the coziest quarterback situations in the conference with Clayton Thorson entering his third year as a starter, as well as Justin Jackson vying for his fourth 1,000 yard rushing season. Losses to Wisconsin and Penn State won’t surprise anyone, but Northwestern should be favorites in every other game they play this season. The Wildcats are in a rare position in the Big Ten with so many programs in flux. A little luck could go a long way, but who needs luck when you have experience?
Caleb Friedman — 8-4 (5-4 B1G)
Northwestern will be good in 2017, but it still has plenty of holes. To be a really successful football team, you have to be able to protect the quarterback and rush the passer, and I'm not sure if the team will be able to do either of those. I see both Wisconsin and Penn State as losses, and I think games against Duke, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota could go either way. The schedule is favorable, so I wouldn't be shocked if the team won more than eight games, but there are too many question marks up and down the roster for me to definitely predict more than eight wins.
Noah Coffman — 8-4 (5-4 B1G)
I hope I’m wrong, because I think this season could be a special one, but the offensive line is unproven and play-calling has been undoubtedly shaky in close games for the past couple of years. Northwestern has the talent to beat Wisconsin or Penn State, and I think they have a legitimate chance at a Big Ten West title, but injuries and inconsistency could easily doom the squad against opponents like Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, who have similar talent levels to the Wildcats. A double-digit win season seems eminently possible, with Clayton Thorson’s potential to be a bonafide star and the secondary’s talent level at an all-time high. However, just a cog or two slipping out of place will demote Northwestern to the land of the also-rans, and I think that is where they will ultimately end up despite their talent.
Martin Oppegaard — 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
I reserve the right to change this when the first injury report is released Thursday evening, but this is a really, really good Northwestern football team. None of the non-conference games scare me the way Western Michigan did in 2016, and the Wildcats should cruise to a 3-0 start. Four of Northwestern’s conference opponents feature brand new quarterbacks, while only Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue have signal callers that started at least half of last year. Of course it’s another story with Northwestern, who has three-year starter Clayton Thorson under center. Thorson’s blossomed into a legitimate NFL prospect and let’s not beat around the bush; he makes his receivers better. Garrett Dickerson is in for a huge year while a combination of Northwestern’s suddenly deep group of receivers will step up. Somebody had to say 10 wins and I’m perfectly OK being the one that does it. The Big Ten West crown is a very attainable goal for this team and in Justin Jackson’s final season, Northwestern sends off its all-time leading rusher with a 10-win regular season.
Will Ragatz — 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Assuming Thorson and Jackson stay healthy, I think Northwestern has the highest floor of any of the non-Wisconsin teams in the West division. I can’t see anything worse than 7-5 in the regular season, whereas Iowa, Minnesota, and (less likely) Nebraska could all potentially fall apart due to unproven quarterbacks and other significant roster holes. However, given the Wildcats’ two extremely difficult games and the question marks at OL and LB, I don’t know if they’ll be able to reach their ceiling. That ceiling is absolutely 10 or 11 wins and a West title, but a lot of things will have to break right for that to happen. I think Wisconsin and Penn State will both be tough losses (I’m a Vikings fan, these things happen to my teams), but NU will finish 6-1 with a single loss to Maryland, Iowa or Nebraska, coming in second in the West and reaching a good bowl game. I would be very happy with this. But if Northwestern wins one or both (!) of those first two games, watch out.
Tristan Jung — 8-4 (5-4 B1G)
- Northwestern could blow the game against Duke. I’m not predicting it here, but it could definitely happen.
- Maryland, Michigan State, and maybe even Purdue could all be better than we think. Also, Iowa and Minnesota are both dangerous and have had success against Northwestern recently. The “easy schedule” narrative is too good to be true. Don’t fall into the trap again.
- However, Fitz remains remarkably good at winning close games, and while I don’t believe it’s statistically repeatable, I do believe that Northwestern will have a lot of close games for Fitz to win this year.
- All that aside, I’m going for 8-4, again, because it makes the most sense. It would be shocking if Northwestern doesn’t have 3-4 wins banked, and even if they lose to Nebraska/Iowa/Penn State/Iowa, they should still be just good enough to pull out a 5-4 Big Ten record. Of course, given our sunny predictions, there’s going to be some really depressing injury or suspension that kills the season before it gets going. Please, I’m just rooting for everyone to stay healthy...well, as healthy as you can be while playing football.
Josh Burton — 7-5 (5-4 B1G)
Forgive me if I don’t seem as optimistic as the rest of our staff, but I’m just worried about the relative lack of depth on the outside — both at wide receiver and cornerback. We’ve written a lot about how hard it’s going to be for Northwestern to make up for the loss of Austin Carr, and going into the season with Macan Wilson, Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek (with a combined total of just 74 career catches) as the top three receivers is a little worrying. After them, there’s a lot of inexperience. The story is similar for cornerback, a position that possibly took a big hit on Wednesday when Keith Watkins III was carted off the practice field with an injury. I think Justin Jackson and a turnover-forcing defense will be able to lead this team over the lesser teams on its schedule but I’m just not convinced the passing game will do enough to help take down the tougher foes.