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ROUNDTABLE: Inside NU’s 2021 football season predictions

‘Tis the season.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ben Chasen: 7-5 (5-4 B1G)

Let me start with the honest truth: I have absolutely no clue how this season is going to pan out for Northwestern. None. This team could realistically win three games. It could also win 11 with a Big Ten Championship appearance and a major bowl win. Literally nothing within those parameters would shock me, so I’m going with a number somewhat towards the middle of that range on the slightly optimistic end. For fun, I’ll preemptively pick surprise losses against Duke and Rutgers and a shock upset at Camp Randall to dash Wisconsin’s unbeaten season hopes. But I really have no clue, and frankly, with the number of new faces that could either rise to the occasion or falter miserably (thinking particularly of Hunter Johnson, the running backs and linebackers here), I don’t think anyone really knows for sure what will happen.

Daniel Olinger: 7-5 (4-5 B1G)

There are two diametrically opposed forces at play here. Northwestern returns the fewest starters and rotation players of basically any team in college football, while also coming off a year in which they benefitted from turnover differential and a multitude of close wins. Both of those are historically a good sign of incoming regression. They also have a soft schedule, with the combined winning percentage of their 2021 opponents from the prior season ranking 129 out of 130 in the FBS per ESPN’s Phil Steele, who also has the ‘Cats’ overall schedule rated as the easiest in the Big Ten by a wide margin. They have hardly any experience and were already a statistically bad offense last year — indicating that they should be bad. They also have a very possible route to starting 6-0 and have performed great as an underdog under their head coach who is one of the 10 best at his job in the entire country — indicating that they should be great. None of it makes any sense, meaning we’re likely in store for a classic Northwestern football season.

Mac Stone: 9-3 (6-3 B1G)

Someone has to be optimistic, right? I’m tired of all of these 8-4 and 7-5 predictions. Why not 9-3? Statistically, the ‘Cats play the weakest schedule out of all Big Ten teams. They should see three relatively easy non-conference wins in Indiana State, Duke and Ohio. Michigan State will be close, but if the ‘Cats can pull it out, that puts them at 4-0! If Northwestern starts 4-0, they’ll be a top 25 team. In all seriousness, they don’t hit the difficult part of their schedule until late October/early November. I’ll say the ‘Cats drop games to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, finish second in the West behind the Badgers, and secure their spot in a good bowl game. In our “successful season” roundtable, I called a lot of the games NU will play toss-ups, and I do believe they will be. Yet, even with their lack of returning production, I think the Wildcats may be able to exceed expectations this year. Maybe I’m just being foolish, though.

Eli Karp: 7-5 (4-5 B1G)

Dusting off the keyboard here, folks. My main reason for pessimism this year is the same reason I had optimism going into last season: experience and chemistry. There are too many unknown, moving parts for me to say Northwestern is going to have it humming all season long. And for all of the offensive uncertainties, I have questions about new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. The good news for NU is both trenches should be strengths, and for an offense that still seems to emphasize a ball-control approach, it will have a quality Big Ten offensive line (that is, of course, if Hunter Johnson sets the right protections). I think it’s reasonable to expect this team to follow a familiar NU pattern: start slowly in September as it figures itself out and then play solid football throughout mid-to-late October and November.

Jacob Brown: 4-8 (2-7 B1G)

Pessimistic Pat here again! Last year I chose NU to go 2-6 and was overjoyed when I looked like a moron. I would love to have an egg on my face again this year, but don’t think I will. For one, I don’t trust either of Northwestern’s quarterbacks. I REALLY want Hunter to be good. Like He15man good (it’s such a cool hashtag.) I could even work with some cheap “Ryan” Field photoshops if Hilinski takes the job at some point in the season. But I don’t trust either. I’m also not sold on the front seven yet. Getting Miller back is huge, but who is starting at MIKE? And can the line perform without Earnest Brown and Eku Leota? There are too many questions on this roster for me to be confident. NU will beat Indiana State, Ohio, Nebraska and Illinois while losing close games to the rest of the schedule. The good news is even if football sucks, it’s Bente Baekers season.

Jackson Gordwin: 9-3 (6-3 B1G)

Out of all the seasons of Pat Fitzgerald tenure at Northwestern, this one might present the biggest challenge to him. When looking at the offense, there is a new quarterback at the helm, a potential star running back lost for the season to injury and key pieces lost on the offensive line and in the receiving core. On the defensive side of the ball, the mastermind at the defensive coordinator position, Mike Hankwitz, has retired and you are returning only 39% of your production. Although there are many things to be pessimistic about, I believe that the back-loaded structure of the season will allow for the new faces on the team to mesh into the system early, which will hopefully lead to a dominant back half of the season. The ‘Cats might once again shock a great deal of college football fans in 2021.

Meredith Revsine: 8-4 (6-3 B1G)

As most everyone mentioned, this season presents a pretty unique challenge for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats. Despite coming off an extremely successful 2020 campaign, the ‘Cats have to put it all on the line to prove themselves, since much of last year’s key players are not returning. The choice to start Hunter Johnson after his abysmal performance in 2019 coupled with the recent loss of Cam Porter gives plenty of reason to doubt NU’s ability to produce offense, but the ‘Cats always seem to figure something out. On the defensive side of things, it will certainly be interesting to see what Northwestern’s defensive production looks like without Hank as its leader, but I’m hopeful the team will work out the kinks in some of their should-be lower stakes non-conference games. Since this year’s schedule is so back-loaded, it will be crucial for the ‘Cats to start strong, something they’ve struggled with in the past. Look for NU to make a statement against Michigan State in the opener as they work towards their fourth winning season in five years.

William Karmin: 7-5 (4-5 B1G)

There are a wide variety of outcomes for the 2021 Northwestern football season and I truly would not be surprised if NU finished anywhere from 4-8 to 11-1. It is all dependent on NU’s QB play. I think this will be an outlier season by NU standards; the team will win the games they are supposed to win, lose their four toughest games against Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and suffer one more loss to an unexpected foe. That would qualify as a respectable season given that the team lost its best offensive player in Cam Porter before the season even commenced.

Bradley Locker: 9-3 (6-3 B1G)

As many of my colleagues have outlined above, there are a ridiculous number of question marks surrounding this Northwestern team, particularly on offense (quarterback, running back, wide receiver). However, NU’s unprecedented success in 2020 was largely predicated upon its stellar defense, and I think that unit will continue to exceed in 2021 thanks to players like Samdup Miller, Joe Spivak, Chris Bergin, AJ Hampton and, of course, Brandon Joseph. Moreover, the ‘Cats don’t have a terribly tough schedule —I expect them to start 5-0 before dropping the following two games at Michigan and vs. Minnesota, but both of those are winnable. Ultimately, I think Northwestern’s date at Wisconsin will likely decide the Big Ten West winner; though I forecast the Wildcats to falter in that contest, this year still seems poised as another solid campaign culminating in a bowl game berth.

Jack Izzo: 8-4 (5-4 B1G)

While non-conference games have been absolutely disastrous for Northwestern in the past, I think they have the ability to overcome those demons, even sans-Cam Porter and with a question mark at quarterback. If there’s one saving grace in this schedule, it’s that Northwestern dodged Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana, leaving the crossover games against the two Michigan schools and Rutgers. Phew. The other upside of this schedule is the early non-conference games, which gives a roster with a lot of new faces a chance to gain confidence. The problem with that, though, is that they can’t just play 12 non-conference games. Either this team wins the five conference games it should be able to (Michigan State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois), or it drops one (probably Michigan State or Nebraska) and beats one of the contenders. I’d love to see another highly competitive team this year, but with all the uncertainty, eight wins are the most I’m willing to give.

Colin Kruse: 7-5 (5-4 B1G)

I predicted the ‘Cats to go 4-4 last season, and they surpassed my expectations. Here’s to hoping that the defending Big Ten West champions are able to replicate the successes they saw in 2020. However, on the offensive side of the ball, the injury to Cam Porter and the quarterback situation give me pause. The major losses on defense are also an issue, although the decent amount of depth and experience in each of the defensive line, linebacker corps, and secondary could yield some breakout performances from guys asserting themselves in starting roles.

The personnel turnover on this team makes the season opener against Michigan State a tough draw. The ‘Cats have also recently struggled against Duke, and no Northwestern fan should take a win over a MAC school for granted. With the Big Ten schedule, winning at the Big House and Camp Randall will be tough, while Purdue and Minnesota aren’t necessarily pushovers. Nonetheless, I have two guarantees: The ‘Cats will most definitely prevail in a 13-10 rock fight against Nebarkas in Lincoln before once more retaining HAT with a blowout victory over Bret Bielema’s Fighting Illini down in Champaign.

Sydney Supple: 9-3 (6-3 B1G)

This Wildcats team is raising eyebrows with their lack of experience and being given no credit in the rankings from last season’s Top 10 finish. Let’s be honest, Northwestern hardly ever gets the respect it deserves, but that is what Fitz always uses to motivate his team to rise to the occasion.

The only thing we know we can count on to be strong is the defense, led by top level experience from Brandon Joseph, Joe Spivak and Chris Bergin. The defense is also being taught under another respectable DC, Jim O’Neil, who will bring a new look to the defense with his NFL experience. As for offense, Johnson has no where to go but up from 2019. The big difference between this season and last season: he now has experience being a starter, a better understanding of the playbook and stronger relationships with his receivers.

John Olsen: 5-7 (3-6 B1G)

While Fitz comedically denied it on Twitter last month, this feels too much like the 2019 team to me. After an outstanding season the prior year, featuring a Big Ten West division title and Holiday Bowl victory over Utah, the ‘Cats experienced a major decline in results the following season. Why? Well, the quarterback position is a good starting point, with a senior starter graduating leaving the door wide open for a position battle in the preseason the next year. Additionally, there was a massive loss in production in the receiving corps, and as a result, the offense fell flat on its face. Sound familiar?

Fortunately for the 2019 squad, most of the 2018 defense returned, but even that couldn’t offset the complete absence of offensive firepower, and this year’s group doesn’t even have the luxury of an experienced defense. Now, there was a copious amount of injuries in 2019, and there is more depth in the 2021 team than there has ever been on a Northwestern roster, but those two factors will only lead to a one or two win improvement over the 3-9 record two years ago. The ‘Cats should have enough to beat Illinois and a Nebraska or Purdue, but outside of that, I’m not expecting much from them. Also, does anyone remember what happened the last time they faced a FCS team with the abbreviation “ISU”?Spoiler alert: it didn’t end well for the guys in purple.

Andrew Katz: 9-3 (6-3 B1G)

Despite the recent injuries and any doubts that arose when Hunter Johnson was named the starting quarterback, I’m optimistic the ‘Cats can win eight or nine games. Northwestern’s schedule is favorable, with six winnable games to start, but a four-game stretch featuring Wisconsin and Michigan could trip up the Wildcats. I think that the ‘Cats could start out 6-0 and that a win against Iowa or Minnesota isn’t impossible. Even though only a small percentage of Northwestern’s defensive production is returning, I think the defense will be good enough to win games for the ‘Cats when they need it most.

Gavin Dorsey: 8-4 (6-3 B1G)

In case the above entries didn’t get it nailed into your head, there are SO so many possibilities that this team could experience this season. If this roundtable was written about ten days ago, before the Cam Porter/Hunter Johnson bombshell news, I might’ve given the ‘Cats an extra game or two. And while the shocking news that day probably significantly dropped my fellow writers’ expectations, I still have hope for this Northwestern team. Instead of Hilinski losing the job, I get the feeling that the outcome was driven by HJ actually winning the job entering his third eligible year with the team. In this hypothetical prediction, Johnson avenges a rough 2019 season to lead the inexperienced Wildcats to a respectable record and a bowl game appearance.

Michael Barthelemy: 8-4 (5-4 B1G)

Sorry to add another 8-4 prediction, but I think it’s a reasonable and positive result for the ‘Cats. Despite the mass turnover of starters, I think that Northwestern will start the season hot. Even with the momentum I see them building heading into the thick of the conference schedule, the lack of experienced personnel will hurt NU against big time opponents such as Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. Hunter Johnson will show that he’s figured it out, but the lack of ability for receivers to create for themselves will once again be what holds the offense back. The defense will not be the same as 2020 either, as it will still be towards the top of the conference with Brandon Joseph and AJ Hampton heading the Sky Team this season, but average linebacker play will once again leave Wildcat faithful thankful for what Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher brought to the field. This team will have playmakers, but there are bound to be a few positional holes to emerge that hold NU back from another storybook season.