Northwestern football exceeded just about all expectations in 2020, piecing together a 7-2 record, earning a second Big Ten West title and a Citrus Bowl championship. With success can come regression, however, and there are many factors that could make or break fall of 2021.
Three reasons to be pessimistic
Coaches moving on
We already know defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will be calling it a career after 51 stellar years coaching college football. Hank’s departure alone could take the wind out of the sails of the Wildcats’ defense, but turnover on the Northwestern coaching staff could reach catastrophic levels:
B1G coaching update...— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 3, 2021
Northwestern HC Pat Fitzgerald is open to taking NFL HC interviews; Ohio State HC Ryan Day is not, per sources.
This is not the first time Fitz has been sought by NFL teams. He was approached by the Green Bay Packers two years ago, but ultimately decided not to pursue the job, citing his desire to keep his kids from moving schools.
While many speculate that the only NFL coaching job Fitzgerald would pursue is that of his hometown Chicago Bears, teams with high draft picks, young quarterbacks and plenty of cap space make several current openings more attractive than the league has seen in recent years.
Adding to the question marks around the coaching staff is the departure of Northwestern’s Athletic Director Jim Phillips, who took a job as ACC commissioner back in December. With Fitz showcasing some of his best work in 2020 and the departure of both his boss in Phillips and his right hand man in Hankwitz, the stars could feasibly align to pry Fitzgerald away from his alma mater, leading to a dearth of leadership in the Northwestern football program and few obvious replacements.
Loss of on-field talent
Despite the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to all athletes choosing to play in 2020, it remains to be seen who will exercise this option to spend a fifth or sixth year in the program. The potential departures could be devastating.
The story begins under center, where graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey has given no indication of his plans for 2021. After winning Citrus Bowl MVP in arguably the best game of his career, few could blame Ramsey for going out on a high note. If he does leave, however, it could plunge NU back into the quarterback abyss of a season ago.
Then comes the defense and a list of names that becomes staggering the longer it goes on: Greg Newsome II and JR Pace have both already declared for the NFL Draft; Paddy Fisher and Earnest Brown IV have both received interest from NFL teams and are likely to enter the Draft as well; sack leader Eku Leota has entered the transfer portal; Blake Gallagher, Joe Spivak and Jake Saunders, all seniors, have yet to announce their intentions for next year. The best case scenario is several holes in the starting defense needing replacement with younger, unproven players; the worst case is a majority.
Add the transfers of receivers Kyric McGowan and Malik Washington and the unknown fates of seniors Riley Lees and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, NU’s offense in 2021 could also hardly resemble the Big Ten West Champions of this season. Will every senior pass up their extra year of eligibility? Chris Bergin says no. Could many of them? Absolutely.
College football is broken
I didn't watch either of the College Football Playoff semifinals. I probably won’t watch the National Championship game either. The players on the field may be the best any college team has to offer, but the story of the CFP sure isn’t.
The CFP selection committee had a tough job this year, that much is certain. There is no objective way to compare teams from different conferences when non-conference play is nonexistent. However, the CFP committee was also afforded its best chance since its inception to prove that any team can make the Playoff, and failed miserably.
This was more than just a chance to get some fresh colors in the tournament. It was a chance to make college football better. The belief that any team from any conference has a shot at the Playoff has finally been put to bed, and the assertion that the CFP is nothing more than a chance to showcase the biggest programs and earn the most revenue has never been clearer. Recruits will follow the flashing lights and the championships and make the talent-rich programs richer.
Three reasons to be optimistic
The departures of likely draftees Greg Newsome II and Paddy Fisher, along with outgoing seniors Nik Urban, JR Pace and Riley Lees and transfers Eku Leota and Kyric McGowan hurt, but a number of young players emerged to excite fans and will produce in their place.
There isn’t a more promising player in the country right now than Brandon Joseph. Joseph was the lone freshman on the AP’s First Team All-America this season after snagging a team-high six interceptions and becoming Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded strong safety in the nation. Joseph is draft eligible following the 2021 season, and if he plays anything like he did this season, NFL teams will be chomping at the bit to select him. Still, he’s got at least one more year at NU, and if he experiences any sort of sophomore slump, he could spend even more time in Evanston.
On the offensive end, Peter Skoronski has stepped into the large shoes left behind by soon-to-be first round NFL draft pick Rashawn Slater and performed impressively, earning his way onto 247Sports’s True Freshman All-American Team. He’ll spend anywhere from the next two to four years blocking for Cam Porter, who forced his way into the role of starting running back by the end of his freshman campaign and sent Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson looking elsewhere for playing time.
As has recently become the norm at NU, there are also likely plenty of other young players with whom fans aren’t yet familiar who will make their way to the forefront next season. If there’s anything we’ve come to know, it’s that Fitz’s staff usually does an impressive job developing players and getting everything out of them.
It goes without saying Northwestern has moved past the dark ages that once plagued the program, but it’s worth taking a look at just how far NU has come in recent years to better understand where it might be headed.
The Wildcats have now enjoyed as many seasons (12) at or above .500 since 2004 as they had between 1951 and 2003. With that shift in success has come a new culture surrounding football in Evanston. The goal is not simply to compete with more established Big Ten foes; it is to beat them and do so enough to win divisional titles. The glistening Walter Athletics Center and neighboring Ryan Fieldhouse stand as physical testaments to the school’s commitment to athletics, and, specifically, football.
There are benefits to this newfound culture that beget further winning. Recruits now see Northwestern not as the doormat of the Big Ten but rather a respectable program with state-of-the-art facilities and a recent record of success. Assistant coaches likely feel less pressured to flee to bigger name programs. All of this is to say NU’s recent success makes further prosperity in the future even more likely.
I’m going all in on this one, but I truly believe that Pat Fitzgerald is unlikely to leave his alma mater unless presented with the opportunity to coach his lifelong NFL favorite, the Chicago Bears. Thus, unless the Bears have a change of heart and decide to part with Matt Nagy after all, my money’s on Fitz staying put. If you’re reading this, Fitz, please don’t make me eat my words.
My attention, then, is turned to why he’s getting all of this NFL attention now and why he has in the past. The answer, of course, is that he is an elite program-builder who lives, breathes and sleeps football. His staff supports him, his players respect him and the Northwestern universe loves him. There’s a reason the primary objective of the hiring of the next athletic director is to keep Fitz home.
It’s no wonder he won the Dodd Trophy, which celebrates on-field coaching success while focusing on pillars of scholarship, leadership and integrity. Given its unusual “elite academic school in a major conference” identity, only a coach that truly embodies these three pillars could win at NU. Thus, while it’s hard to know what the future holds without Fitz, with him there are bright days ahead for the Wildcats.