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Pre-Citrus Bowl Mailbag: One last time on the gridiron before the crossover to the hardwood

The football offseason seems to pose many lingering questions.

@CitrusBowl on Twitter

With Northwestern’s Citrus Bowl matchup against Auburn right around the corner and both Wildcat basketball teams on the rise, we answered some of your most pressing questions.

Cammie Schott: Just saw the Music City Bowl was canceled because Missouri had to cancel due to a large COVID outbreak. I know we had one case reported but have not heard anything else. Any updates?

Lia: As of right now, it seems that Northwestern has contained the one case of COVID that appeared last week. To our knowledge, the team will be traveling to Orlando shortly, and the game does not appear to be in jeopardy.

Eli: The Mizzou situation was interesting because it dealt with a COVID issue in its December 19 game and then let players go home for Christmas. Then, to no one’s surprise, the situation got worse. I feel for Iowa — you will hardly ever hear me say that — since it stayed through the holiday just to have its bowl canceled after there was a possibility Mizzou would have problems. All I can say is Northwestern lucked out not drawing the Tigers in the Outback Bowl.

Arnaldo Rivera: How many seniors do you anticipate coming back for one more season?

Lia: It’s really hard to know at this point. However, with a number of more veteran players entering the transfer portal, there is definitely reason to believe that a handful will elect to spend their extra year in Evanston. I could see a player like Earnest Brown IV coming back for another year or any other guys who want one final shot at proving their talent before possibly playing at the next level.

Eli: Fitz said he’d have an idea after the Big Ten Championship game, and we got a sneak preview with some of the transfers. I expect we’ll see things trickle out in the few days following the Citrus Bowl. While an extra year has its appeals, I don’t think NU’s seniors would have many regrets with how the season went, and it also took a toll on them. The pandemic is hard on everyone, and on a journey that’s gone back to June, some of them might determine they’ve enjoyed the ride but are ready to hang it up. Some might decide they want to get another degree and not jump into the workforce just yet. Everyone’s going to go through some kind of cooling off period after the season.

Michael Morris: Can the guys who are in the transfer portal play in the bowl game?

Lia: To my understanding, players in the transfer portal technically could play in the bowl game but will not and that coaches normally elect to not play those players. It has also been said that some of the players looking to transfer have already left campus, so they will definitely not be a part of the trip to Orlando.

Eli: ⬆️ I don’t expect to see any player who entered his name into the portal.

@BlakeKolesa: His tireless devotion to his alma mater removed from the equation, at which power five program(s) and National Football League team(s) would Pat Fitzgerald most excel?

Eli: This is a fascinating question, and one which I’ve pondered (and I’m sure many others have thought about) as well. I could be proven wrong, but I don’t believe Fitz would make a successful NFL coach. Hopefully he doesn’t catch a hold of this and use this as personal bulletin board material. To me, he’s a college coach through and through, and his entire philosophy works at the collegiate level and at a place like Northwestern. In another universe, I’d love to see Fitz at another Power Five school just to see what it looks like. He fits NU so well and has created his coaching style out of the unique circumstances in Evanston. Maybe it’s not that hard a transition to another elite academic school like Stanford, Duke, etc., but he’s always thrived off creating his own expectations. What would Fitz look like at a place with troves of four- and five-stars, a storied program and impatient media and fans?

Lia: As Eli said, I’m not sure how Fitz would fare as an NFL coach. The Bears job would definitely be the most enticing, but I don’t think he’s ready for his time at NU to come to a close quite yet, especially without a Big Ten title. As for other college programs, I think he would thrive at the handful of schools with similar values to NU, like Eli said, but it's so hard for me to see him wearing anything but purple and white.

@Larry_Watts25: I love this team, but with the excitement from the regular season and how well the basketball team is playing am I wrong for not being emotionally excited for this bowl game like others in the past?

Eli: It is weird that in a span of just over a week, the focus has shifted from caring only about football to zeroing men’s basketball’s meteoric rise. That being said, football has gotten the fanbase through the fall and has given it much to cheer about and be proud of. This season could have been, and was for many, some kind of disaster. But it wasn’t for the Wildcats. During a pandemic, they cracked the top 10 rankings of the College Football Playoff more than halfway through the season, won the West Division for the second time in three years and made their best bowl in 24 years. For me, there’s a sense of relief that Northwestern’s season will make it to the finish line. But then it’s eight months without football. NU can achieve its first year-end top-15 ranking since the 1996 season, and that’s significant! I say set aside one-two more days to emotionally indulge in the gridiron, and then let basketball take over.

Lia: Basketball is certainly starting to pull my focus away from football as well, but Friday’s matchup has some significant implications and leaves a lot to be excited about to bring this crazy and historic season to a close. First, Mike Hankwitz has one final shot to secure his 400th career win before hanging it up this offseason, which appears to be the main motivating factor for the players heading into this week. But additionally, the Wildcats have the chance to secure arguably their best bowl win since they won the Rose Bowl in the 1948 season. That’s a pretty incredible opportunity for this squad, and I anticipate a great game in Orlando as a result.

@bainard: Should ‘Cats fans be concerned about the number of football players, especially at skill positions, entering the transfer portal? What does this portend for an offense that progressed from putrid in 2019 to functional-but-anemic in 2020?

Lia: The number of players entering the portal at first glance may seem alarming, but given the context of this year and the NCAA granting all players an extra year of eligibility, it is to be expected and something every team is facing. While some of the anticipated transfers have been surprising, most of them come with reason like Kyric McGowan grad transferring or Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson moving on to leave room for Cam Porter to take over as the lead back or incoming star Anthony Tyus III. Right now, it seems like a lot are leaving, but in a matter of weeks and months, I anticipate a handful of notable names from other programs making the move to Evanston as well.

Eli: As Lia said, I would wait to make any judgments since this offseason is going to be unlike one we’ve ever seen across college football. Every coach is going to be dealing with similar situations, and right now NU’s running back position is thin but not devoid of talent. As for the wide receivers, the three starters are all seniors (two of them fifth-years), so it’s not surprising to see them go, whether that’s simply moving on from football or transferring. The departure of Malik Washington caught some off guard, but guys like JJ Jefferson (didn’t play this year), Bryce Kirtz and Genson Hooper Price will have their chances next fall.

@KenCrites: The Auburn coaching situation is messy. What can we expect from Auburn on offense?

Lia: While the firing of Gus Malzahn definitely impacted the Tigers’ program, he did not have a very strong bowl record in his time at Auburn, winning just two of his seven bowl appearances. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will step up in the meantime before Bryan Harsin of Boise State takes over next season. The Tigers are certainly more of an offensive threat than a defensive threat. Freshman running back Tank Bigsby is the real deal and the heart and soul of their offense in his SEC Freshman of the Year-winning season. If the Wildcats cannot contain him like Trey Sermon, they will be in for another long afternoon. Bo Nix, while not the most consistent of quarterbacks, is a significant threat as well on the ground. The Wildcats have struggled to contain the quarterback draw and the run overall this season, so the combination of those two players is their biggest concern.

Eli: What Lia said. Bo Nix is no Justin Fields, so Mike Hankwitz can probably prepare a slightly more convention game plan, but the ‘Cats still have to prepare for his legs.

@Patrick98711416: Who plays QB for NU next year?

Eli: Of all the questions, this is once again the big one. There are three options: (1) Peyton Ramsey returns (2) NU lands a transfer or (3) the Hunter Johnson experiment, Part II. I’m not meaning to rank those, because each has its pros and cons. Rolling with HJ might provide the most upside, whereas it’s pretty clear what you’re getting with Ramsey. It’s easy to forget about Johnson given he was largely out of the picture this season, but he hardly had a chance to succeed in 2019 for various reasons. While Ramsey brought much needed stability to the quarterback position in 2020, there are options for Mike Bajakian under center next year and I wouldn’t worry about it just yet.

Lia: I agree with what Eli said. We could also see Andrew Marty thrown in the mix as well, as he’s appeared in four games this season, primarily to run the ball, though.

@MacStone00: Why is Northwestern men’s basketball good and should I take a break from making predictions for a while?

Eli: #FireM(a)cStone

Lia: I guess you’re just the Rodger of basketball ¯\_(ツ)_/¯