The Northwestern Wildcats were a big disappointment through the first five games of the 2017 season. They then changed how their 2017 season was remembered. This year, it will be harder for Northwestern to overcome a slow start. The Wildcats will need to start quickly if they want to get where they need to go and rise above their regular season win total.
Northwestern 2018 regular season win total
Odds courtesy of BetDSI Sportsbook.
What Happened Last Year
The Wildcats went 2-3 in their first five games. Two of those losses were to Wisconsin and Penn State, two of the best teams in the Big Ten and the whole country… but the third loss was an inexplicable no-show against a Duke team which finished the regular season at 6-6. Northwestern looked disjointed and not ready for the grind of a 12-game schedule.
Then everything changed. Northwestern did not lose a game for the rest of the season, winning all seven remaining regular season games and then winning the Music City Bowl to finish at 10-3. The offense wasn’t spectacular, but it made clutch plays in an overtime win over Michigan State which really turned the season around. The offense finally hit its stride in the last two regular season games of the year, scoring 39 against Minnesota and 42 against Illinois. Northwestern played better as the season went along, but the schedule also became softer.
What Will Change This Year
Running back Justin Jackson is now in the NFL. Replacing his versatility in the backfield – where he was a great setback and a dynamic receiver out of the backfield – will be difficult. What will help is that veteran Clayton Thorson returns for a fourth season at quarterback, although he suffered an ACL injury in the bowl game and might need extra time to rehab the injury. If he is healthy, though, the offense has a reasonable chance of remaining stable. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has always been a good defensive coach, so Northwestern should not lose too much ground on the defensive side of the ball.
The key for this team will be its offensive line, which has to give Thorson enough time to throw and has to make the running game credible enough that NU can control the ball against opponents with strong offenses. Wisconsin is the ultimate example of a team Northwestern must be able to keep the ball away from this season. With Jackson out, that line might need to adjust to a different style of runner in the backfield. How that chemistry develops will be vital in determining how well this team performs.
Outlook & Prediction
The Wildcats play in the Big Ten West, which means they play three games in the Big Ten East and six in their own division. The three East games for NU this year come against Michigan, Michigan State and Rutgers. Northwestern should definitely win one and will very likely lose one of those three. Being able to go 2-1 instead of 1-2 would put this team on schedule. Northwestern should beat Duke and Akron in non-conference games but figures to lose to Notre Dame. In the Big Ten West, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and Purdue should be wins, while Wisconsin should be a loss. Iowa is a toss-up game. Ultimately, if Northwestern beats Michigan or Iowa, it should get to eight wins. The uncertainties surrounding those teams give Northwestern a good chance of reaching its goal. Take the over.
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