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Every year Coach Pat Fitzgerald works miracles and gets the Wildcats into contention for the division title. And he probably will do it again in 2021 despite having only 9 starters back. They have a lot of holes to fill in several key positions and will choose a QB from two transfers. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Defensively, there will be new faces, as well as a new coordinator, to try and duplicate a season where Northwestern finished with the fifth best scoring defense in the country. That will be hard to duplicate.
Offense: The QB seems to be a battle between South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. Both are said to have strong arms but how good are they? The running game is great with the return of Cam Porter who was very effective over the final four games in 2020. The offensive line has 3 starters returning including freshman All-American tackle Peter Skoronski. All of the wideouts have to be replaced but they have two productive tight ends with Charlie Mangieri and Trey Pugh forming a good tandem. It sure seems like they have a lot of question marks.
Defense: There are 5 starters returning from a great defense last year. The defensive front will get three-year starter Samdup Miller back after he opted out of the 2020 season. They also will have two tackles back in Trevor Kent and Jason Gold Jr. who were injured last year and were severely limited. Chris Bergin is the lone returning linebacker but he is a good one to build around. They have a star in safety All-American Brandon Joseph who had six interceptions last season and some promising newcomers to add to the mix.
9/11 Indiana State
9/18 at Duke
The schedule makers were kind and the Wildcats have three games that they can certainly win. The toughest game appears to be at Duke and the Blue Devils are picked near the bottom of the ACC. A 3-0 record will be expected out of the non-con games.
9/4 Michigan State
10/2 at Nebraska
10/23 at Michigan
11/13 at Wisconsin
11/20 Purdue (at Chicago)
11/27 at Illinois
The conference schedule isn’t terribly difficult and the Wildcats didn’t get Ohio State and Penn State in cross-over games. The home schedule includes the season opener with Michigan State which is very winnable. Rutgers is a must win as is a neutral site game against Purdue. The other home games against Minnesota and Iowa will be toss-ups and a split would be nice. The game at Illinois is a must win and the other three at Nebraska, Michigan, and Wisconsin are going to be difficult.
Summary: On paper, this looks like a down year for Northwestern with so many positions that have to be filled with newcomers. A plus is the early schedule could give the Wildcats a 4-0 start and give them added confidence for the tough game the rest of the way. There are enough winnable games on the schedule for them to get back to a bowl game that’s becoming pretty common in Evanston these days.
Predicted Finish: 5th Place in the West Division
Overall Record: 7-5
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