Every week during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, Northwestern takes the field against a Nevada team that has a new coach and a whole lot of question marks. The Wolf Pack went 5-7 last season, but ranked 124th (out of 128) in the country in S&P+. Pat Fitzgerald knows his team has to get off to fast start this season after the debacle out of the gate in 2016, and, on paper, it looks like the Wildcats should have a good opportunity to get started on the right foot against Nevada. Here are the reasons Northwestern will or won't win Saturday:
Why Northwestern will beat Nevada
The Wolfpack can't stop the run, and Northwestern has a pretty good running back
Nevada ranked 119th in defensive rushing S&P+ last season, and while last season's performance won't necessarily translate to this season completely, it would be surprising if the Wolf Pack have a stout run defense in 2017. Justin Jackson has proven that he can take over games even if his line play is at or below average, and the line could be better this season. The Ball Carrier will gash Nevada early and often, and John Moten IV might even get some late-game touches in this one. Northwestern will want to control the clock and dictate tempo Saturday, and that'll start and end with the ground game.
It's going to take time for Nevada to find its groove
Anytime you have a new head coach, it's going to take to adjust to new schemes and coaching, especially for a team that was on the decline when the new coach took over. Jay Norvell is a talented offensive mind, but to expect his players to execute his offense well in Week 1 is a stretch. The rebuild at Nevada is going to be a multi-year process, and the first week of the first season could be rough, partly because none of the players on the current roster were Norvell recruits.
Northwestern is flat-out better than Nevada
Don't overthink this. In many ways, we don't know to expect from Northwestern, but we do know that it's a team that's talented at many key positions and has plenty of players who have had major success in one of college football's premier conferences. Nevada hasn't been truly relevant since Colin Kaepernick was still in Reno, and it just doesn't have the talent to hang with Northwestern for four quarters.
Why Nevada will beat Northwestern
Northwestern's offensive line falls apart (again)
If the 'Cats can't block anybody, they can't score points, which is problematic when you're trying to win a football game. We saw how that nightmarish scenario could come to fruition against an inferior opponent in Illinois State last season, so it's certainly possible again this season. At first glance, the NU offensive is already deeper than last season's team with J.B. Butler as a reliable sub, but we don't know what we're getting from Jared Thomas and Blake Hance on left side of the line. Nevada will stack the box on Jackson and make Clayton Thorson win the game; Thorson is capable of doing that, but it'll be tough to do if he has no time to throw.
The threat of the unknown
Because the Wolf Pack have a new coach, there's no film on them with Norvell at the helm and the Air Raid attack he will bring to the field on Saturday. Northwestern will likely watch offensive tape from Norvell's previous offenses, but the personnel he has to work with is completely different now. It wouldn't be surprising if Nevada runs a few trick plays and takes some risks Saturday, and Northwestern won't have any clear-cut film to prepare for that. If a few of those wacky plays go Nevada's way, an NU team that may well be rusty could be in for an unexpected dogfight.
Nevada's young receiving corps will get expose Northwestern's lack of corner depth
Keith Watkins II and Trae Williams are both out this week, leaving Montre Hartage and Marcus McShepard as the only experienced corners on the active roster. Nevada's No. 1 receiver Wyatt Demps is back from last season, and Andrew Celis and Ahki Muhammed could take big leaps this fall. If Norvell opts to spread NU out and throw the ball a lot — which seems likely — the lack of a proven third and fourth corner (and maybe even second corner depending on how you view McShepard) could allow Nevada to keep drives alive and control the clock, much like Western Michigan did in last season's opener.