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Three reasons to be optimistic about Northwestern football in 2020

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Regressing to the mean is a good thing here.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 27 Wisconsin at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Maryland 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 uncertain times. Today, we whittled it down to the three main ones:

The quarterback position promises to be stronger

After last year’s dismal quarterback-by-committee experiment, Northwestern quite literally can only improve from 117 yards per game, six total touchdowns and 15 interceptions. But it’s not just that Hunter Johnson, Aidan Smith, TJ Green and Andrew Marty are all one year older and in a new, simpler offensive scheme.

NU actually has a proven, successful Big Ten signal caller on its roster after Peyton Ramsey left Bloomington for Evanston. The graduate transfer from Indiana majored in secondary education, and he promises to teach Northwestern’s offense how to produce through the air. In 11 appearances last year, Ramsey completed 68% of his passes, tossed 13 scores and averaged 223 yards passing per game. Over 31 career games, the Cincinnati native has completed 66.5% of his passes and thrown for 42 touchdowns, 212 yards per game and 6.9 yards per attempt.

For reference, the iron man Clayton Thorson in his 53 games completed 58.4% of his attempts, threw 61 touchdowns to 45 picks and averaged 202 passing yards per game. Thorson’s yards per attempt was 6.3. The two signal callers played in different offensive systems, but the stats speak for themselves: Northwestern has itself a quarterback.

Let’s also remember that NU doesn’t need a Ferrari under center, or on offense at all. Sure, they’ll take it, but competent will do the trick to fight for the Big Ten West. Ramsey is the new reliable, and him plus a more reinvigorating playbook should leave fans hopeful.

A veteran defense returns plenty of talent

For all the craziness of 2020, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is one man who’s fairly certain in what he’s got. The loss of program sack leader Joe Gaziano hurts, but it opens up the door for Earnest Brown IV to have a memorable senior year. Defensive line coach Marty Long has a track record of replacing production, and the rest of the defensive trenches return. So does the starting linebacker corps, led by NFL hopeful Paddy Fisher and tackling machine Blake Gallagher, which is unquestionably the strongest unit on the team and hungry for a rebound year.

In the secondary, three of four spots are nailed down. Greg Newsome II (11 passes defended) has all the makings of a shutdown corner as he enters his junior season while the senior safety tandem of Travis Whillock and JR Pace are a more than capable duo. Who earns the final defensive back spot is unknown, but Cam Ruiz or AJ Hampton has another year of experience after some growing pains the last couple of years. For a secondary that allowed under 200 yards passing per game last year, it figures to play a successful bend-don’t-break scheme once again.

Should the unit get back to its impact playmaking ways after a year in which it forced only 14 turnovers, we’re talking about a top-25 defense.

Look at the schedule

Pat Fitzgerald and co. couldn’t have gotten a much more favorable slate, drawing crossover opponents Maryland and Michigan State, both of whom are in various stages of program rebuilds with first- or second-year head coaches. With the shortened schedule, NU dropped a road game at No. 9 Penn State. If you haven’t yet had the chance to check out our winnability rankings and rationales, there’s no better time than the present.

Minnesota and Wisconsin look like the teams to beat in the West division, but can the Gophers follow up a record-setting season after the departures of five key defenders, including Antoine Winfield Jr. and Carter Coughlin? Wisconsin, for all its consistency, lost program great Jonathan Taylor as well as top receiver Quintez Cephus to the NFL. Starting quarterback Jack Coan is out indefinitely with an injury, thrusting talented redshirt freshman Graham Mertz into the spotlight. The defense figures to be stingy once again, but the mid-November matchup takes place at Ryan Field, where the Wildcats are 3-1 against the Badgers under Fitz. Remember when this game was happening at Wrigley?

Then it’s just another year in the Power Five’s most intriguing division. Iowa will still be breaking in new quarterback Spencer Petras when NU travels to Iowa City Week 2. Nebraska still hasn’t fixed its defense, while leading receiver JD Spielman transferred to TCU. Purdue is confusing as hell, and we simply don’t know which version will show up. As for Illinois, well, HAT x5.

All that said, there are no excuses for Northwestern to not go at least .500. Depending on just how good this team actually is, who knows what happens in a 2020 Big Ten West.

Northwestern football begins its season under the lights at Ryan Field on October 24. To stay updated on all of our football coverage, subscribe to the Inside NUsletter, delivered to your inboxes every Friday. Next week we’ll roll out a comprehensive season preview issue featuring all of our preseason content, game week coverage, features, exclusive articles and guest predictions. Every week thereafter it’ll prepare you for Saturday’s game and more. It’s your one-stop shop for everything Wildcat football.