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Northwestern football: Three Reasons for Pessimism in 2021

It’s okay to be a downer every once in a while.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

As much fun as it can be to think about all the good things that could swing Northwestern’s way in 2021, there are plenty of plausible reasons as to why 2021 won’t be filled with smooth sailing for the ‘Cats.

The first begins with unprecedented turnover within the football operations branch of the athletic department. Yes, the football team lost a lot of returning production, but the losses that occurred behind the scenes might end up being the real story.

Since 2008, Pat Fitzgerald worked directly with former Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips, and upon his departure, NU announced that Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs, Mike Polisky, would overtake that position. Polisky had worked closely with Fitzgerald and Phillips for the past decade and the desire for continuity and familiarity within the athletic department was likely a large reason behind his promotion.

The rest is history, though, as Polisky stepped down due to a lawsuit filed by a NU cheerleader accusing the university of not properly handling complaints about her and her teammates being sexually exploited.

In February, NU took its next hit in losing Northwestern’s Director of Football Operations and Strategy, Cody Cejda, to Brandon Staley and the Los Angeles Chargers.

According to ESPN CFB writer Adam Rittenberg’s article from 2018 on the 40 best college football staffers under under 40 years old, Cejda had, “built a reputation as one of the top operations men in college football. He work(ed) closely with head coach Pat Fitzgerald on many elements of the program and serves as Northwestern’s liaison to NFL personnel.” It’s pretty clear that Cejda had an impact on all major areas around Northwestern’s football team such as recruiting, player personnel and analytics.

Former Northwestern RB Jacob Schmidt, who was hired as NU’s Director of Player Development in 2012, will replace Cejda.

Whereas in past years Fitz would tout program stability as a pitch to prospective recruits, in 2021, Fitz will need to establish a rapport with a variety of new faces.

And if you think these staff losses are significant, just think about the most important one of them all — Mike Hankwitz. Hank’s loss will be significant in itself, but if you also take into account just how long it took Fitz to finally relieve Mick McCall from his duties as the offensive coordinator, you may then realize just how much he values program stability as a head coach.

This may not be a recipe for success in a season where Northwestern ranks close to last in all of the FBS with returning production, as you can see from below graph courtesy of @SaturdayGameday and Bill Connelly on Twitter, Northwestern’s returning production in 2021 ranks second-to-last in all of the FBS.

This is a stark difference from last season where Northwestern returned 84% of its production from 2019.

I believe the narrative around Northwestern’s lack of returning production is misguided, but that story is a topic for next week. If you are looking for areas where Northwestern’s lack of returning production could lead to negative ramifications on the football field, though, I would start with the defensive back seven. Outside of Chris Bergin, NU will be starting two new linebackers in 2021, both of whom will lack starting experience. Meanwhile in the secondary, Greg Newsome II, Cam Ruiz and J.R. Pace’s departures all leave holes that may be too gaping for even Brandon Joseph to replace.

Lastly, Northwestern has historically struggled under Fitz to put together consecutive seasons of success. The most recent example here is that after winning the West in 2018, NU went 3-9 in 2019. Below you can see a Sports Reference chart showing Northwestern’s overall record in each season since 2006 when Fitzgerald took over the program.

The outlier in having back-to-back successful seasons is 2017 and 2018. If you recall, NU started 2017 with a record of 2-3 (those three being bad losses to Penn State, Duke and Wisconsin) before winning eight straight to finish the year. I believe the poor start to 2017 contributed to NU’s success in 2018, as NU had plenty of offseason momentum in 2018 yet remained hungry due to not having played in Indianapolis for a Big Ten title yet.

In 2021, the message from everyone inside and around the program has been to build off of their Big Ten West title take the next step forward in winning the whole conference. Here’s to hoping this division title defense goes better than the last one did.