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Three reasons to be optimistic about Northwestern football

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We’re just one Big Ten Championship Game away from Pasadena...

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Stanford, and the beginning of another season, fast approaching, hope springs eternal across college football. Despite some questions, Wildcat fans certainly have plenty of reasons for optimism in these happy times. Today, we whittled it down to the three main ones:

Defense

While each defensive position group graduated one major starter (Jordan Thompson, Nate Hall, Montre Hartage and Jared McGee), the overall retention rate is quite impressive and a huge advantage for the Wildcats this season. Veteran leaders on defense have played a large role in the team’s recent success, and they’ll have plenty of them to lead the way once again in 2019.

Last season, when the offense was inconsistent, the defense came up strong with big plays to put games away. Travis Whillock and Joe Gaziano, for example, both came up with big plays down the stretch in Iowa to send Northwestern to Indy. Plays like these defined the season, and with an offense plagued with uncertainty heading into 2019, the defense will have a big weight to carry.

After an impressive 2018, the returning stars are only bigger, faster and stronger in 2019. Paddy Fisher alone is a reason to be excited. As the face of Northwestern football, Fisher is already entering this season with momentum after earning preseason first team All-American honors. Already in discussion as a first-round draft pick, Fisher will lead an army of experienced and talented defensemen this season––Joe Gaziano, the Miller brothers, Blake Gallagher, Trae Williams, JR Pace, Greg Newsome II and Travis Whillock, just to name a few.

The best teams build their base around a strong program identity, and the Wildcats have what promises to be another daunting front seven in 2019. Proven ability to stop the run is a pretty good reason to be optimistic about your team’s chances in a West Division that lacks elite quarterbacks and offensive firepower for the most part.

Hunter Johnson (if he starts)

Just stating the obvious here. Since Hunter Johnson first announced his decision to transfer to Northwestern in June of 2018, he has been at the center of an optimistic future. It’s pretty hard not to be optimistic considering he is arguably the best recruit in Northwestern history.

Although he hasn’t quite won the starting job, Johnson is an elite athlete and will be one of the best pure talents to have graced Ryan Field thus far. There is a reason he was the No. 2 quarterback in 247 Sports’ class of 2017 composite rankings, ahead of Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm and only falling behind Stanford’s Davis Mills. He was an all-state track runner in high school––rumor has it, he runs a 4.6 40-yard dash. Along with his athletic talent, he has a great arm, averaging over 13 yards per completion in high school with 69 touchdowns and finishing his first year at Clemson going 21-of-27 for 243 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception while barely seeing the field.

As only the second five-star recruit under Fitz, expectations are understandably high and bode for extreme optimism in the near future. Johnson has what it takes to take Northwestern’s programs to new heights if he pans out as expected. We’re still unsure if he’ll trot out as the starter for the first series against Stanford, but it’s hard to imagine Johnson not in getting any looks in the opener after a full offseason to develop. With the combination of his talent, many returning offensive weapons and one of the top defenses in the conference, Northwestern has a chance to establish itself as the West’s team to beat.

Underdog Status

While rather unconventional as a reason to be optimistic, Northwestern has proven more successful in recent years when underestimated. Let’s face it––the preseason poll is not our time to shine. In both 2017 and 2018, the Wildcats were unranked in the preseason but ranked in the postseason. In 2019, Northwestern is simply following the course of history.

Not only was Northwestern left out of the AP rankings, but seven Big Ten teams and five teams the Wildcats beat last year made the cut. Additionally, six of Northwestern’s 2019 opponents (No. 4 Ohio State, No. 18 Michigan State, No. 19 Wisconsin, No. 20 Iowa, No. 24 Nebraska and No. 25 Stanford) made the list.

This makes Northwestern’s schedule seem all the more difficult, but history has proven that Northwestern thrives against the spread and plays to the level of its competition. Last year was a classic example. The Wildcats struggled against teams they easily outmatched like Akron and Rutgers but dominated tough competition like Wisconsin and Michigan State. Last season, the Wildcats actually had a better record against the spread than with the spread, going 6-3 as an underdog and 3-2 when favored, so being underestimated could play in the Wildcats’ favor. This team doesn’t always win pretty, but they hang around with tough teams and find ways to close games out that they truthfully have no business winning. But hey, they all count the same.