clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For Northwestern football, a daunting Big Ten poses a major external challenge

Many of the Wildcats’ opponents only appear to have gotten stronger this offseason.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin - Spring Practice Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Nine first-round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. Two of the four College Football Playoff semifinalists. Nine bowl game participants.

In 2022, the Big Ten posted yet another fantastic season. While Georgia rumbled all the way to a perfect 15-0 record and its second straight National Championship, the midwestern group of 14 schools combined for a 101-78 record — the second-best of any Power Five conference in the country, behind only the SEC.

Of course, that success was not extrapolated to Evanston. Finishing at 1-11, Northwestern beat just a single Big Ten opponent, earning its first outright last-place finish (using conference and overall record) since 1998. More broadly, NU has won just one conference game in three of the last four seasons.

Ironically enough, despite ending 2022 with its worst record since 1989, Northwestern had its most draft picks in 38 years. Consequently, the ‘Cats will lose the significant contributions of Peter Skoronski, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Evan Hull and Cam Mitchell.

If there’s any solace for fans of the purple and white, it’s that almost every Big Ten school lost several top-flight players, too. From C.J. Stroud to Jack Campbell to Joey Porter Jr. and countless more, virtually every program will encounter turnover in its sources of production.

With the Big Ten’s Quarterback, Tight End, Offensive Lineman, Defensive Lineman, Linebacker and Cornerback of the Year all transitioning to the next level, some may figure that the conference will weaken entering 2023. In actuality, though, the opposite is likely true — due primarily to transfer portal and coaching acquisitions that should legitimately elevate certain squads.

For years, the Big Ten West has been a punching bag of criticism, from its dearth of offensive output to a glut of mediocrity warranting special attention from the Sickos Committee. But, the final year of the West’s existence might seriously dispel some of its most long-standing narratives.

In 2022, Purdue won the division courtesy of an 8-4 overall record and a 6-3 conference mark; yet, the Boilermakers ranked just 10th in the conference in offensive and defensive predicted points added, finishing with a -11 point differential. The Boilermakers’ 43-22 drubbing at the hands of Michigan in the Big Ten Championship was a strong indictment of the weakness out west.

However, we should see a much more vintage Wild Wild West in 2023 — something that Northwestern must be cognizant of.

A year ago, Wisconsin finished at 7-6 and as winners of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against Oklahoma State; the Badgers also produced three NFL Draft picks, including the conference’s sack leader in Nick Herbig. One would scarcely call that a “down” season, but it was just that in Madison, with the team firing long-tenured coach Paul Chryst and quarterback Graham Mertz struggling mightily once more.

This offseason, a clear message was sent by athletic director Chris McIntosh: that type of performance is expected to be an aberration. Wisconsin was one of the busiest teams of the entire offseason regarding both its roster and coaching staff.

In terms of coaches, the Badgers landed one of the more respected guides in the sport in Luke Fickell. Fickell not only brought over his former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, but also swooped in to snipe former North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who catalyzed Sam Howell and Drake Maye’s success in Chapel Hill. The influx of talent was only just beginning, with UW adding SMU QB Tanner Mordecai, former four-star USC WR C.J. Williams and a slew of impactful Bearcats.

Wisconsin may be the frontrunner to win the Big Ten West, but the Badgers aren’t the only intra-division team that reloaded this year.

After ranking last in the nation in offensive predicted points added, Iowa revamped its offense by adding former Wolverines Cade McNamara and Erick All, plus Ohio State receiver Kaleb Brown. Whether or not such additions mesh under polemical offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is yet to be seen, but the Hawkeyes will remain stout defensively (as always) with standouts like Cooper DeJean and Xavier Nwankpa returning.

As Wildcat fans know all too well, Nebraska was the lone team to fall to Northwestern last season. But even the Cornhuskers are somewhat revitalized after hiring former Baylor and Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. On top of that, UNL brings in former Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims and Georgia tight end Arik Gilbert. Fundamentally, it’s tough to imagine things going worse in Lincoln this year than they did under Scott Frost, which featured a five-game losing streak from mid-October to the end of November.

Even the Boilermakers, who won the division, have some more ammo. Following the departure of head coach Jeff Brohm, Purdue named Illinois defensive coordinator — and one of the rising stars of the profession — Ryan Walters as its head coach. Moreover, quarterback Hudson Card and former four-star Ole Miss cornerback Braxton Myers could be playmakers in West Lafayette.

Across the conference, powerhouses like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State will all remain elite in 2023, even with the aforementioned losses. Further, upstarts Maryland and Minnesota should continue their winning ways, with each possessing strong foundations in coaches and talent on both sides of the ball.

On the other side of the coin, not every team approaches early September with a similar level of optimism. After the departure of Payton Thorne, Michigan State’s outlook remains murky following a 5-7 campaign in 2022. Questions persist whether or not Bret Bielema and Illinois can sustain high levels of success subsequent to four high-profile Illini being drafted, including three in its secondary. Bottom-feeders Indiana and Rutgers did little to better their projections, too.

Ultimately, how does Northwestern’s offseason stack up relative to its competitors? Yes, Pat Fitzgerald and the ‘Cats landed firepower in Cincinnati’s Ben Bryant and Michigan’s A.J. Henning, but insufficient work was done to mitigate offensive and defensive lines that are patchwork at best. It’s difficult to state that NU has improved much going into 2023.

When a team wins just one game, finding better breaks and room for positive change should not be too challenging. For instance, having just a turnover-free quarterback in Bryant or a plus returner in Henning might be enough to warrant three or more wins.

On the macro level, though, bringing in such heralded transfers doesn’t alter the fact that the Big Ten has, at the very least, maintained a strong number of teams that appear to be competitive. With the vast majority of members either sustaining the level of skill on their roster or greatly bettering it, almost no conference clash will be an easy game for Northwestern — there’s no inexplicable onside kick to fuel a come-from-behind win.

At the end of the day, the stark reality is that the Wildcats did little to close ground in an offseason where peers primarily look mightier. While the team’s own deficiencies — from a newfound coaching staff to young starters to simply finding a way to win in America — are profound enough, NU must claw its way through a conference slate that’s no gimmick, with a second straight finish in the cellar looming.