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2018 Northwestern football winnability rankings, explained

Our staffers defend their picks.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We published our winnability rankings in chart form yesterday, so today we figured it would be good to explain ourselves.

Each one of our staffers wrote a commentary defending why they placed a certain team at No. 7, why a different team is underrated, or why another team represents Northwestern’s toughest test in 2018.

Davis Rich: Nebraska will be an easier win than many expect

Hey, I think Scott Frost is a great coach. I also think expectations are too high for his first year in Lincoln— the Cornhuskers would do well to win five games. Nebraska featured the 110th best defense in the country last year, right behind 1-11 Charlotte, which is an actual university with a Division One football team. The defense has some potential playmakers, but it’s difficult to rely on transfers to step in and become studs right away. Oh, and Nebraska’s quarterback will be someone who has never taken a college snap before. (Please don’t say anything about Northwestern’s quarterback situation.) I don’t expect much of a fight when the Cornhuskers come to Ryan Field Oct. 13.

Caleb Friedman — Sleeper team: Duke

After last year’s debacle in Durham, this should be obvious. But I really feel Duke slots in right behind what I think everyone views as the clear top four on the schedule (in some order): Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Michigan and Michigan State. Duke completely fell off last season after pummeling NU, but the Blue Devils have a lot of talent coming back on both sides of the ball. Daniel Jones is talented, and should be more consistent after another offseason of seasoning. There are good players back at every key skill position, and the defense returns most of the front seven that stymied Clayton Thorson & Co. a season ago. The Blue Devils play a tough schedule next season, but Bill Connelly has them projected at No. 40 in S&P+ for next season, the fifth-highest of any opponent on Northwestern’s schedule. So, it seems logical to have them as the fifth-toughest opponent in my winnability rankings (especially when you factor in that it comes in Week 2, when NU is typically still in an early-season funk). But, I’m the only person to rank Duke fifth or higher, so there’s my “hot” take.

Avery Zimmerman: Michigan State will be the toughest test on this schedule

Listen, I know Northwestern’s recent history against MSU would suggest otherwise, but this is going to be an extremely challenging matchup for the Wildcats. After L.J. Scott chose to return for another year, Sparty instantly vaulted into the Big Ten title conversation. Returning 21 starters, MSU is full of experience and talent on both sides of the ball. The S&P+ rankings have them sitting at 11th heading into 2018, and that might even be underestimating Mark Dantonio’s team.

Their defense is absolutely loaded, giving up only 95.3 yards a game on the ground in 2017. That same defense lost only one starter, and for a Northwestern team that ran the ball 52% of the time in 2017, a defense like that could require an excellent game from Clayton Thorson and Co. (even though Northwestern has torched MSU’s defense the last two years). Furthermore, Brian Lewerke is a very efficient quarterback that is capable of managing a game exceptionally well. He threw 20 touchdowns to only seven interceptions in 2017. With a defense that good, even a slight improvement could push the Spartans into CFP contention.

Noah Coffman — Rutgers will be a tougher game than most expect

Because of their recent malaise, the rest of our staff had the Scarlet Knights slotted in behind only Akron and Illinois as the third easiest opponent of the season. But all signs point to Rutgers actually beginning to turn into a decent team, despite their relative lack of offensive production. Last year, they played every non-top 15 opponent close except for a hiccup against Indiana, even giving Washington a close game. And though they might be starting a true freshman at QB when Northwestern comes to town, their already good defense looks like it might even improve this year. Throw in a road environment that likely won’t entice many Northwestern fans (though it probably won’t draw a ton more Rutgers supporters), and this begins to look like a trap game in the middle of a difficult schedule.

Lukas Stachtiaris - Wisconsin is Northwestern’s toughest challenge

As I wrote in our Know Your Opponent Series, Wisconsin is really, really good. They enter the season ranked seventh in the AP Poll, making them the second highest-ranked Big Ten team behind only Ohio State and the highest-ranked opponent on Northwestern’s schedule. Coming off of an undefeated season, Wisconsin has ten of its 11 offensive starters from last season returning, giving no reason to expect a decline in play on that side of the ball. While the Badgers’ defense has some question marks, they still flaunt one of the most talented linebacker groups in the country.

In my mind, Wisconsin is the only team on Northwestern’s schedule with a very legitimate chance of reaching the College Football Playoff and after coming up just short last season, they’ll be playing for keeps. This game is going to be an uphill battle for Northwestern, but hopefully the Wildcats will be able to protect their home turf on October 27th.

Martin Oppegaard - Northwestern is facing Michigan State at an opportune time

State’s No. 1 corner Josiah Scott will miss approximately two months with an unspecified noncontact injury suffered in training camp, making his status questionable for the Nov. 6 game in East Lansing. Inevitably, the Spartans will come out of non-conference play looking ahead to a trip to Happy Valley on Nov. 13 and the ballyhooed in-state bout with Michigan on Nov. 20. Mark Dantonio is too good of a coach to let his guys forget what happened against Northwestern the last two years, but if there is a time to play the No. 12 ranked preseason team in the Coaches Poll, this may be it.

Talia Hendel - Iowa’s defense will be solid despite key losses

In a classic Big Ten defensive battle, both Northwestern and Iowa’s offenses got off to a slow start at Ryan Field last year. The two teams combined for just 27 total points after regulation and overtime.

With the losses of linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson, and many gaps to fill in the linebacker position group as a whole, there are a lot of uncertainties for Iowa. But there is a lot of young talent to fill in these holes, and with the Hawkeyes being so late in Northwestern’s schedule, they’ll have time to gain experience and continue their defensive success.

That said, without Akrum Wadley, Northwestern’s defense should be even better at limiting the Hawkeye’s scoring than it was last year – and the 2017 performance was nothing short of impressive. Linebacker duo Nate Hall and Paddy Fisher combined for 18 tackles on the day and will be returning to carry the defense to the top of the leader boards once again. Still, even with the uncertainties on Iowa’s end, I’d expect them to find a way to get the defense back to its dominant status and for this to be a defensive, low-scoring contest once again.