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Can Northwestern’s football team repeat their success in 2021, or will inexperience hold them back?

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Kind of, but maybe less so than one might think.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Auburn vs Northwestern Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Despite all of the momentum that Northwestern has built up following a dream 2020 season, there’s one reason to suspect 2021 could be a down year for NU. Experienced and talented players are leaving, and new players will have to step up to take their place. Only time will tell whether or not the ‘Cats can repeat their success from the past season, but there’s arguments for both sides.

Let’s dig in.

The Good:

To figure out the potential upside of the 2021 team, look no further than 2020 for a blueprint. In the midst of a global pandemic that prevented players from practicing with each other for a long stretch of time, Northwestern pulled off an incredible 7-2 season that placed them 10th in the final AP poll at the season’s end. New offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was able to revamp the offense in a very short amount of time during a global pandemic, a transfer quarterback was able to thrive despite having to learn an entirely new system with limited in-person contact, running back Cam Porter broke out in the last three games of the season and first-year safety Brandon Joseph’s six interceptions tied for the FBS season-best alongside Georgia Southern’s Derrick Canteen.

While not a carbon copy of the 2020 campaign, several of those aspects could play out in ‘21 as well. Ryan Hilinski will be the third transfer quarterback in three years and is in competition for the starting job. The ‘Cats haven’t had an all-star wide receiver since Austin Carr graduated in 2016, but Northwestern commit Jordan Mosley is one of the highest-rated prospects in program history, and graduate transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. will be fun to watch too. New commits in linebacker Mac Uihlein, offensive tackle Caleb Tiernan and defensive end Najee Story are also playmakers that could help make Northwestern a competitor both next season and in years to come.

The Bad:

Simply skim the list of players leaving the program, and it becomes clear that a step backward could soon befall the ‘Cats. Peyton Ramsey is gone. So is cornerback Greg Newsome, safety JR Pace, wide receivers Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees, running backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson, defensive ends Earnest Brown IV and Eku Leota and linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. In addition, legendary defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired at season’s end after spearheading another top tier unit. You might recognize a lot of those names as Northwestern’s biggest playmakers of the last season. The story of Northwestern in 2020 hinged on their surplus of heavily experienced guys playing football in comparison to their competition, and their successors now have massive shoes to fill.

On offense, the Porter and Evan Hull combo will likely sustain the running game, but whether the young group of wide receivers will be able to generate a connection with the new starting quarterback (most likely Hilinski) is far from certain. In addition, there’s also the question of novelty, as this is now Mike Bajakian’s second year calling plays in the Big Ten, and coaches have seen his offense in full force on the field.

On defense, things could be a lot worse, as Hankwitz’s contributions as a defensive mastermind can’t be underestimated. Fourteen of his 25 seasons as defensive coordinator across the nation resulted in top-25 defenses, leaving Jim O’Neil with a near-impossible standard to meet. Given his track record with the Raiders, it’s questionable whether he’ll rise to the occasion.

The secondary will almost certainly take a step back with the departure of Greg Newsome and JR Pace, even though Cameron Mitchell, Cameron Ruiz and AJ Hampton have proven themselves to be good players at times. The defensive line loses Earnest Brown and Leota, but Samdup Miller will be back after opting out last season. The linebackers will also take a step back with the departure of both Fisher and Gallagher, although O’Neil highlighted three younger players that he thinks have potential at the position in Khalid Jones, Cullen Coleman and Bryce Gallagher (Blake’s younger brother) in his press conference on April 24.

What does this mean?

I have a suspicion this team is going to look a lot different from past Northwestern teams we’ve seen, and I’m not saying that due to Hankwitz’z absence alone. Northwestern is going to have to rely less on its defense than it has in the past, which is very antithetical to the slow, defensive battles that have defined the Pat Fitzgerald-era. I’m putting Northwestern’s season on two things: defensive pressure and the wide receivers.

If the starting quarterback and wide receivers can build rapport with each other, then Northwestern can score. Porter should be awesome to watch, but a one-man-running-the-ball-show can only do so much. I think back to the Wisconsin game, where the Badgers held Northwestern to 24 yards on the ground, forcing them toward alternative offensive options.

Second, Northwestern has always been a team built around generating defensive pressure, getting stops and forcing turnovers. I’m not questioning whether the players have the capability to do that — at each position, there is at least one player who has proven they can play. But if Jim O’Neil’s defensive system isn’t effective, it doesn’t matter how experienced the players are, and that’s the key: if the Wildcats take a step back in 2021, their inexperience won’t be the reason why.

I’ll be honest, I’m keeping my expectations low so I can get super excited if the ‘Cats start winning games. But there is still a lot of reason for optimism, and if it’s not a good season this upcoming year, the snowball will certainly be larger in 2022.