Daniel Olinger: Finish third or higher in the Big Ten West
Some would say this is placing expectations too low, other might say it’s too high. Thus is the nature of discourse. There are four real contenders for the division crown in NU, Io_a, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It would be understandable for the ‘Cats to take a small step back given their massive loss of production heading into this season combined with all that swung right for them last season in turnover differential and in close games. But falling back to the ranks of Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska like they did in 2019 is something that this program should and admittedly wants to fully mature out of. A successful 2021 season is letting the rest of the Big Ten know that Northwestern will always be a contender for a trip to Indianapolis in December, even if they don’t make it there this year.
Lia Assimakopoulos: Make a bowl
Uncertainty seems to be the most prevalent trend among Northwestern teams each offseason, and this year is no different. Even before the announcement of Hunter Johnson as starting quarterback and Cam Porter’s season-ending injury, there was a lot of uncertainty about how the team would perform after losing so many key pieces in the offseason. Therefore, it is challenging to define success because we really don’t know what Northwestern team is going to show up. If Johnson lives up to his five-star expectations and new transfers and freshman step up, another trip to Indy (and a win this time) could be in store. But if we see another season like 2019 unfold, three conference victories would be an achievement. I expect the 2021 Northwestern team to fall somewhere in the middle of 2019 and 2020, which means the Wildcats’ sights should be set on making a bowl. If they can overcome all the current adversity to reach a bowl game, no one can deny that they achieved at least some success.
Mac Stone: Win seven games, including a win over Michigan, Iowa or Wisconsin
I’ll be completely honest, with the injuries to Cam Porter and Zachary Franks, as well as the uncertainty around the quarterback position, I don’t see a ton of games this season that are close-to-guaranteed victories. Obviously, the ‘Cats should, and likely will, beat Indiana State and Ohio in non-conference action. Outside of that though, a lot of the games feel like toss-ups to me. I think we can all agree that Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin will likely be the most challenging opponents Northwestern faces this year. With that being said, if the Wildcats can tack on victories over Duke and three other conference opponents, and then beat either the Wolverines, Hawkeyes or Badgers on top of that, it’s a successful season for Fitz and Co.
Ben Chasen: Beat Michigan, Iowa or Wisconsin and win a bowl
Let’s face it: this is going to be a project of a Northwestern team. A ton of key starters have left. An additional (and critical) one in Cam Porter just went down for the season before we got to Week 1, and as much as I’d like to think that’ll be the full extent of NU’s injury exposure in 2021, this is football, and we all know better than to assume that. As Lia mentioned, if Hunter Johnson is what ‘Cats fans thought he could be heading into the 2019 season — an All-Big Ten quality signal caller — then the ceiling could be much higher for this Northwestern team than I currently anticipate. But if only modest improvement is seen from Johnson, then the standard of success for this team is likely lower than it has been in recent years given the immense amount of roster turnover that has taken place. If the Wildcats can get a signature win or two in conference play and continue their stellar record in postseason play, it will be indicative that at least some of the new starters have proven themselves capable, which should be the main priority in a season of transition like this one.
Andrew Katz: Remain in the hunt for a Big Ten West title
Are Northwestern’s Big Ten championship aspirations hurt by Cam Porter and Zachary Franks’ injuries? Yes — those are two big losses — but the ‘Cats still have the best coach in the Big Ten West and are bound to be in the hunt for another trip to Indianapolis. Northwestern’s first six games are winnable, and — although Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin await them in the back half of the schedule — nine or ten wins could be possible. If that’s not enough to win the Big Ten West, the ‘Cats will at least be a Top 25 team and lined up for a good bowl game.
Jacob Brown: Beat one of Iowa, Wisconsin, or Minnesota
The three teams I’ve listed here have all been chosen (to different extents) to win the West this year. In my eyes, it’s very likely going to be a meh year, and I wouldn’t be shocked if, in 10 months, we were talking about what QB Fitz picked up from the transfer portal. This program can afford a middling season. What they can’t afford is another terrible season like the team had in 2019. It doesn’t have to be a great season, but if you want to keep the recruiting at the level of the class of 2022, you have to beat the teams you’re recruiting against. Furthermore, even if it is a crummy season, having one game to look at in spite would be lovely. Having the 3-6 Wildcats ruin the season of the undefeated Badgers at Camp Randall would be beautiful.
Jackson Gordwin: Win the Big Ten
Before Cam Porter went down, a successful season for Northwestern, in my eyes, would have meant winning the Big Ten. Now that we know Cam Porter will be unavailable for the season... my goals remain unchanged: win the Big Ten.
Sure, this is a goal that is challenging and almost seems insurmountable, but with Pat Fitzgerald at the helm and the upward trend that this team has been following over the past few seasons, I now believe that we are past the days of being satisfied with having a winning record, making it to a bowl game or winning the West. Even though this squad has seen a large drop in returning production, aspirations should be high for this season.
Jack Izzo: Seven wins or more
When I watch Northwestern play, I’ve found being cynical to be quite helpful. That way, if the ‘Cats outperform my bottom-of-the-barrel expectations, I get to enjoy it a little more. I’m not sure on this one, though. Northwestern wins a weirdly high percentage of their games by one score or less, and the stats nerd in me thinks that without Mike Hankwitz as defensive coordinator, the ‘Cats might exchange those close Ws for Ls. Unless something catastrophic happens though, there are still at least six winnable games on this schedule. I’m going with seven because, while I think the team has the capability for eight wins or more, there’s probably going to be at least one weird and dumb loss that prevents the Wildcats from getting there.
John Olsen: Don’t be as bad as 2019
As much as I’d like to say that the ‘Cats will be competing for the division title again, there’s just too many challenges for this group of players to overcome to get to that position. They face a tough schedule, including two preseason AP Top 25 opponents in the West, along with the tough draw of both Michigan schools out of the East. Additionally, as we’ve discussed throughout the summer on this site, there’s a general trend of inexperience throughout the two-deep, and with the injury to RB Cam Porter and Hunter Johnson being named the starting quarterback — a role in which the Indiana native wasn’t exactly convincing in two seasons ago — this roster doesn’t fill me with anywhere near as much confidence as last year’s.
However, as each recruiting cycle goes by under Fitz, there is a considerably greater amount of talent from the first-string all the way down to the scout team than there was when he first got here. As a result, there isn’t as great of a drop-off in the results when a lot of seniors graduate as there would’ve been ten — or even two — years ago. Given the non-conference schedule, there is no reason that this team shouldn’t win five games at the absolute worst (which could make the ‘Cats bowl eligible), but with the composition of this team compared to everyone else on the schedule, anything beyond five wins would be a bonus.
Bradley Locker: Finish ranked in the Top 25
Last season, the 'Cats began without being ranked. That changed quickly, as Northwestern cracked the AP Top 25 after beating Nebraska and starting 3-0. Though Pat Fitzgerald's team ended #10 in the country, they will not start the 2021 season ranked. For as much as Northwestern loves to be the underdog and shock the world, it undeniably means something to players, coaches, staff and administrators to have that small number beside NU’s name when reading a scoreboard. Ending this year in the Top 25 would truly cement Northwestern's cumulative excellence and a changing of the tide, as it would mark the fourth time the Wildcats have finished ranked in the last five years.