Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (11th season, 70-56)
2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Dean Lowry, DE; Nick VanHoose, CB; Dan Vitale, SB
Biggest returners: Anthony Walker, LB; Justin Jackson, RB; Clayton Thorson, QB
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): No. 46 (10th in B1G)
Top committed recruit: Three-star RB Jeremy Larkin
2016 strength: Running game
What else would be the strength at Northwestern? Justin Jackson will enter his third straight season as a starter. Amazingly enough, he still has two years of eligibility left. That means there will be two more years of watching the workhorse tailback dominate the football and continue to be one of the more underrated skill players in the country. Clayton Thorson also showed that he has enough mobility to call his own number and make defenses pay for selling out on shutting Jackson down. The Wildcats will have some key pieces to replace up front, but this is still a unit that will pound the rock consistently no matter how many newcomers it has on the offensive line. The 2016 offense should have a similar look to the 2015 group. That is, let’s run the ball until the cows come home and pray that we don’t fall behind by two touchdowns.
2016 weakness: Passing game
Pat Fitzgerald took a risk when he decided to start a redshirt freshman quarterback. The Wildcats dealt with the growing pains of not having an polished passer in hopes that it would pay dividends down the road. Well, Northwestern simply could not move the ball against quality competition without a lead. Iowa, Michigan and Tennessee all destroyed the Wildcats because once they got ahead, they knew NU didn’t have the pieces in place to methodically pass the ball down the field.
RELATED: Final B1G Power Rankings
The Wildcats don’t have anybody that can take the top off a defense and they don’t have possession guys that always seem to get open. Superback Dan Vitale was the only Wildcat to average more than two (!) catches per game, and he’s gone now. So is Christian Jones. In fact, Austin Carr is the only guy back who caught a touchdown pass all year. Barring some major improvements from Thorson and an inexperienced group of wideouts, the passing game will again be NU’s downfall in 2016.
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 7-5 (4-5 in B1G)
You know what doesn’t sound fun? Making trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. All of those games are in October, too. This defense was in midseason form when it kicked off the year with a stunner against Stanford. I still think this defense, led by All-American linebacker Anthony Walker, has the ability to be one of the B1G’s best. The Wildcats will likely end up on the positive side of their fair share of defensive struggles. But without a major influx of talent, the questions about Northwestern are the same. What will NU do when teams can stop the run? Will anybody step up as a No. 1 receiver? How will the defense survive when the offense keeps stringing together three-and-outs? For now, Northwestern can only win games that follow their blueprint. That, ultimately, could hold them back against a more battle-tested 2016 schedule.