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Roundtable: What is the biggest concern for Northwestern heading into the 2020 football season?

Take a wild guess.

With the college football set to start in a little less than two months, we have begun our preview of Northwestern’s 2020 season. First, we brought you in-depth previews of each position group — and named the best and worst. Then we broke down the 10 most important players on Northwestern’s roster.

Now, we asked each of our staffers to share what they think the biggest concern is for Northwestern this coming season.

Lia Assimakopoulos: Quarterback production

Without a doubt, the biggest concern facing Northwestern this season is the quarterback room and how it will improve upon an unacceptable 2019 campaign. Northwestern finished with one of the worst passing offenses in the nation last season, which played a major role in its 3-9 overall record. If Northwestern’s quarterbacks cannot improve this season, Wildcat fans are in store for another painful year. With plenty of potential players to start under center like Peyton Ramsey, Hunter Johnson and TJ Green, Northwestern certainly has options. Now, the question is, how will they perform, and who (if any) will rise to the occasion?

Eli Karp: Injuries

I’ll spare you all of the directly related pandemic reasons to be concerned about this season. They’re obvious and becoming more evident by the week. College administrators want flexible timelines — they want more time to get ready to start the season while also noting the desire to miss the second wave. But you can’t have it both ways. The offseason program has been so unorthodox, we don’t know exactly when practices and camp will start as it seems schools are on different schedules based on test results, and I really wonder if athletes’ bodies will be ready for the season as they normally would be. Having players back in the facilities is a good first step, but what do next steps look like, and will they be spaced out enough to provide proper conditioning? Amidst all the on-field performance and COVID-19 concerns, don’t overlook this one.

Colin Kruse: Quarterbacks

I agree with my fearless co-editor on this one. The ‘Cats had themselves a rude awakening in 2019 after a few smooth, consistent years with Clayton Thorson under center. All signs point to Ramsey as the likely starter. One might argue that Green could have locked up the starting role had he not been injured against Stanford, and, of course, Johnson will look to bounce back after a tough year both on and off the field. The talent in that quarterback’s room is there; my concern revolves around these competing storylines around the candidates for the job. Can one of these three step up?

Lucio Vainesman: Campuses returning in the fall

We can pretend all we want that there isn’t an ongoing global pandemic and that our country isn’t in the worst shape compared to the rest of the world, but that doesn’t make this virus any less real. When students from all over the country return to the cesspool that will become Evanston, the campus will devolve into a breeding ground for COVID. Athletes are no different. They still have to take their classes and practice daily, essentially moving around campus more than the average student. There will be the tough task of monitoring the health of every football player, coach and manager during the course of a four-month season. There is an inherent risk, and it seems like the decision is out of the players’ hands at this point. All we can hope is that the NCAA values the health of its players as much as they value the millions in revenue that the players produce yearly.

Daniel Olinger: Isn’t it obvious?

Just kidding. It’s probably COVID and potentially a lost season.

Claire Kuwana: The offense, if there is any

As a lot of the other staff writers have said, the combination of a new OC and a large quarterback room means that we pretty much have no idea what the offense is going to look like in the fall. With the exception of the linebackers, there is some serious doubt surrounding a number of the other position groups, especially on offense. Even worse, no one really knows if Northwestern is going to end up actually playing a full season this fall. While the development of the offense will be the biggest concern for the ‘Cats if they do take the field, the fact that game play is still up in the air is arguably the bigger problem.

Jackson Boolbol: Passing offense

The main problem facing Northwestern, as with every other program in the nation, is COVID-19 and the probability that the season will be altered or canceled. Aside from that and assuming this season will be in full swing, the Wildcats’ passing offense could very well be their Achilles heel. With struggles at the quarterback position last season and a new transfer coming in, the starting job is, to our knowledge, up for grabs. The main issue, however, is depth at wide receiver. Riley Lees was by far the most productive totaling over 400 yards receiving, more than double anyone else at that position. If the Wildcats want to see some success, they need diversity in the playbook and that comes from having an impactful receiving corps.

Didi Jin: The offense as a whole

126th out of 130 teams. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, Northwestern ended last season with the fifth-lowest scoring offense in the FBS. And while many of last year’s offensive woes can be attributed to the dismal play at quarterback, it’s hard to identify any part of the offense — besides the offensive line — that gives me confidence going into this season. Most of the players at skill positions are relatively unproven, and on top of that, there’s a new OC who just missed out on most of spring ball. With all of this in mind, there’s simply no telling what this offense will look like come September.

Evan Epstein: Offensive consistency

Looking back on the dumpster fire that was the 2019 ‘Cats offensive unit, it’s easy to forget that a decent portion of their struggles can be attributed to circumstance. It started with the Stanford game that opened the NU campaign with the loss of a healthy Isaiah Bowser and all forms of TJ Green due to injuries and continued with the knee issues and familial obligations of Hunter Johnson. While new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is presented with an abundance of options both under center and in the backfield for 2020, I fear the ‘Cats coaching staff may get lost in opportunity without allowing the rest of the unit to build rapport with their key contributors.

Andrew Katz: Travel

In case you forgot, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and as people have begun to travel and take vacations, the number of cases in the U.S. is rapidly increasing. Northwestern is currently slated to travel to five different states this season, and at least four teams will visit Evanston. The chances a Northwestern player, coach or staff member will test positive for COVID-19 are very high, and it’s likely someone on an opposing team will also have contracted the virus. I have been pessimistic about sports returning during the pandemic, and how MLB’s and the NBA’s plans work out will likely serve as an indicator for college football. Traveling during whatever the pandemic looks like in the fall is concerning, and when you factor in the Wildcats 1-4 record on the road last year, the season looks grim.

Brian Paget: The passing attack

Without a revitalized passing game, there is no hope for the ‘Cats to right the ship in 2020. After the ‘Cats threw for just six touchdowns a season ago, new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey will be tasked with igniting Northwestern’s abysmal offense. Unfortunately, this may be even more difficult due to the loss of practice time as a result of the pandemic. Bajakian will likely implement a run-heavy scheme, playing to one of the Wildcats’ biggest strengths — their offensive line. While the run game should help open things up for the rest of the offense, Northwestern will need to find success throwing the football to achieve the explosive plays that Bajakian has preached. With a new quarterback likely under center and a lack of playmakers, this is once again an area of major concern.

Ben Chasen: Offensive scheme transition

When Mick McCall was relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach following a disastrous season for the Wildcats’ offense in 2019, Northwestern Twitter’s reaction was rather passionate. But with McCall gone and new OC Mike Bajakian stepping in, the pressure for immediate offensive improvement is higher than ever. In the latter years of his tenure, many fans frequently cited McCall as a leading cause of the Wildcats’ struggles. If the ‘Cats can turn the page and produce an offense decent enough to compliment their capable defense, they could be looking at not only a brighter season than their last but a brighter future than their past. With the regular scapegoat out of the picture, however, continued offensive dysfunction would serve as a sign of deeper problems for the program as a whole. While the odd nature of this season (pandemic and all) might give a little bit more leeway to Bajakian than a first-year coach would otherwise have, Northwestern’s success this season, and the future success of the program, hinges upon his ability to effectively install and implement his new offensive system. Accordingly, the change in offensive schemes is a major area of concern.

Jacob Brown: Fans

Not only does NUFB face uncertainty on how it bounces back this season, but they might not have a season to bounce back in. If they do play, what will the fan situation look like? I know Northwestern may not have a huge fanbase, but it has a devoted one. And it could just be my self-centered optimism, but I’d like to say that the fans provide some sort of home field advantage for the ‘Cats. Whether it be an extra jolt of energy from watching the student section get into “For Whom the Bell Tolls” on third down, the jingling of keys before kickoff (as problematic as it may be), or the excitement of hearing the stands burst into the fight song after a touchdown (or a groan after a missed tackle), I’d like to think that the fans have an impact on the players. Without the fans, the highs won’t be nearly as high. And without some supporters behind you, I’m willing to bet that the lows will be much lower as well. On the flip side, if it’s just students and season ticket holders in Ryan Field, how much of an advantage does NU get? How much of an advantage is it for the ‘Cats to have an actual ‘home’ crowd in Big Ten play, instead of the usual half purple, half orange/red/yellow?