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Inside NU 2018 Football Season Predictions

Our staffers weigh in on how NU will do in 2018.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Friedman: 7-5 (5-4 B1G)

This might seem on the lower end, but I just can’t get past how many difficult games are on the schedule. There are the four most difficult games (Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame), and that’s probably 0-4 or 1-3 for Northwestern. Iowa, Purdue and Duke are virtual toss-ups, but two of those three games are on the road. And, Nebraska could be closer to a toss-up if Scott Frost can develop his offense quick enough. I don’t think NU will be a drastically worse football team than it was last season, but I don’t foresee NU winning every single close game, as it did last season. S&P+ has six wins as the most likely outcome, so I’ll give NU one extra win because of Pat Fitzgerald’s knack for exceeding NU’s second-order win expectancy. The stats say NU was about as good as an eight-win team last season, and the schedule is tougher in 2018 — seven wins makes sense to me.

Davis Rich: 7-5 (5-4 B1G)

Let’s tier this thing using my highly-scientific (read: not scientific at all) win probability estimations;

  • Locks (80 percent win probability or better) — Akron, Illinois
  • Games Northwestern really should to win (60 to 80 percent win probability) — Duke, at Rutgers, Nebraska, at Minnesota
  • Toss-ups (40 to 60 percent) — at Purdue, at Iowa
  • Party-wrecking opportunities (15 to 40 percent) — Michigan, at Michigan State, Notre Dame
  • Wisconsin

As nice is it is to get Michigan, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin at home, it’s hard to expect Northwestern winning more than one of those games, if that.

NU then needs to take care of business against its weaker opponents (Akron, Illinois, Rutgers, and Minnesota) and keep from dropping a matchup with Duke or Nebraska. It’s reasonable to expect NU will drop a close game in 2018 that it might have won last year, so I have Northwestern losing to either Purdue or Iowa, because Big Ten road games aren’t easy.

All in all, I’m taking the statistical path of least resistance — NU loses to the teams that are clearly better, and beats the teams that it is clearly superior too. As for the tossups, I agree with Caleb. NU will win more than it will lose because Fitz seems to come out on top in those games.

Avery Zimmerman: 8-4 (6-3 B1G)

This is a really difficult schedule. Point blank. It can be broken up into three sections.

  • Locks: Akron, Rutgers, Illinois. Northwestern should have no problem taking care of business in those games. That being said, we’ve seen losses to NIU, Western Michigan, and Illinois State, so you can’t really consider anything a gimme. I have to assume that NU will take these games, though, as all three teams are ranked 90 or below in the S&P+ rankings. Fitz will have the guys ready to take care of business.
  • Toss ups: I have a broader scale for toss ups than Davis does. @Purdue, Duke, Nebraska, @Iowa, @Minnesota can all go either way. If Northwestern can win those five, the season will likely end up as a major success. Will they win all five of those? I don’t think so. Duke is closer towards a lock than the rest of those games, but I could see Iowa and Nebraska really give NU difficulty. Despite this, I think the Cats’ can actually take four of these, especially if they can steal close games at a close rate to what they did last year, like Davis and Caleb said.
  • Upset chances: Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Michigan, @Michigan State. Those four games represent extremely challenging tests, but in all honesty, they aren’t the most relevant games talking about Northwestern’s record. With regards to excitement and showcasing the team on a national stage, sure, but this season will be defined by games against teams that are about the same caliber as NU. I see Northwestern taking one of these games, and it could be any of them. I don’t rate Wisconsin as highly as many do(they’re outside the top 10 of S&P+), and Notre Dame and Michigan are susceptible to let down performances.

Overall, I have Northwestern winning 3 locks, 4 near 50-50 games, and earning an upset, leaving them at an impressive 8-4, but just short of winning the B1G West.

Tristan Jung (7-5, 5-4 B1G)

Joseph Weinberg (8-4, 5-4 B1G)

As far as conference play goes, I see Northwestern losing the three games they should lose (Michigan/Michigan St/Wisco) and dropping one of two on the road against Purdue or Iowa. While an upset in one of those three games isn’t completely out of the question, I think the Wolverines/Spartans/Badgers will be too strong defensively for the Northwestern offense to overcome. Anything could happen against Purdue given its the first game of the season, and the ‘Cats could be caught sleeping on the road in Iowa City after back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Notre Dame in the two weeks before.

And speaking of Notre Dame, I think Northwestern pulls off the upset just like they did in 1995 and 2014. NU shouldn’t win this game, but a combination of the Fighting Irish looking ahead to their home game against Florida State and Clayton Thorson balling out in his second-to-last-ever game at Ryan Field will give the Wildcats a signature home win.

Lia Assimakopoulos (7-5, 5-4 B1G)

Unfortunately, we cannot all be blessed with a walk-in-the-park schedule like Clemson has this year. I have to agree that 7-5 is a realistic and conservative prediction. There are three different categories of games: should-win, toss-ups and hopeful upsets. Should-wins are Akron, Nebraska, Rutgers, Minnesota and Illinois, all games that NU is favored to win by over 60 percent. If all goes as planned, Northwestern can get the bulk of their wins against these teams.

Toss-up games include Purdue, Duke and Iowa. Iowa will be the toughest, as it is a Big Ten road game after what will be arguably their hardest stretch of the season. I agree with Caleb that you can expect Northwestern to pull out a win in most close games based on last season’s results, but it is also fair to assume they may drop one, most likely to Iowa.

For the other four games (Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Michigan and Michigan State), we can only hope for an upset. While three of the four are home games, I struggle to believe that home field advantage will be enough to overcome the talent that each program presents. I see Michigan as the most likely win of these three Big Ten games, but it would be a steal, as the Wolverines tend to dominate the Wildcats. While I hope Joseph’s prediction is right about Notre Dame, I doubt Northwestern will beat them for the third time in a row in a series that the Fighting Irish lead 37-9-2. I agree that Northwestern’s offense will struggle to produce against a dominating Notre Dame defense that is returning almost all of its players this year.

Martin Oppegaard (9-3, 6-3 BIG)

Martin Oppegaard being too optimistic about a Northwestern football team, a tradition unlike any other. Injuries — and not a lack of talent — are the only thing keeping this team from at least a nine-win regular season. Clayton Thorson should be good to go Thursday, but I’m a little wary of what we don’t know about yet.

Noah Coffman (6-6, 4-5 B1G)

I’ll take the pessimistic route. There’s a lot of difficult tests in this Big Ten schedule, and Northwestern caught some major breaks last year with their overtime wins. Outside of Akron and Illinois, I don’t see a slam-dunk win on this schedule, and Northwestern has had much-publicized struggles with even the easy opponents under Fitzgerald in the not-too-distant past. All it takes is a couple of injuries or a lack of improvement from key positions, whether that be Thorson or Hall plateauing after major injuries or the offensive line enduring more maddening early season struggles, for this team to lose some toss-ups.

Specifically, I think Scott Frost’s Nebraska and a stiff Rutgers defense will both provide the Wildcats with significant tests, despite newcomers at quarterback. It wouldn’t take much to drop one of those, and with a plausible early season loss at Purdue and a reversal of fortune in this year’s clash with Iowa, the Wildcats could win one of their four big clashes and still finish at .500. And that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of a Duke loss.

Perhaps I’m just locked into a pessimistic mindset, but I see a team that almost always seems to have something go wrong, especially during the start of the season. Combine that with a lot of pressure for players to perform up to expectations they’ve never fully reached (whether it be Thorson, the offensive line as a unit, or even guys like Montre Hartage and Jeremy Larkin), and I see last year’s losable games becoming losses. A 9-3 regular season wouldn’t completely shock me, but I think the Wildcats have too many minefields to avoid. They’re going 6-6.