Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Northwestern. We’ll stay with the B1G West all week.

The Fighting Rece Davises made their point.

When few in the national media took Northwestern seriously despite a 5-0 start, the Wildcats showed they were legit. The loss to a bad Michigan State team was a disappointing one, but Northwestern proved itself with a great effort against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and a dominating win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.

Discount Northwestern at your own peril. The Wildcats have only started a season in the Top 25 once since Pat Fitzgerald took over in 2006, but they have finished the season in the Top 25 5 times since 2012. Last season, they closed the season at No. 10, their best finish since 1995 when they were No. 8.

After losing 9 straight bowl games from 1995-2011, the Wildcats have won 5 of their last 6. Northwestern has become one of the Big Ten’s best programs.

That said, this season will truly test Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is universally heralded as one of the best coaches in college football, as he does more with less at a university with strict academic standards that present obstacles other coaches just don’t deal with. Northwestern faces an uphill climb once again this season.

Thanks to the NCAA giving athletes a free year of eligibility from last year’s COVID-marred season, teams around the country are returning unusually high numbers of starters. Of the 14 Big Ten teams, 11 of them have 16 or more returning starters, with Minnesota leading the way at 20. Northwestern, meanwhile, is down to just 7 after the Cam Porter injury. There were high expectations for Porter this season after he exploded the last 3 games of 2020, so much so that Drake Anderson (Arizona) and Isaiah Bowser (UCF) transferred.

Plus, Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern’s defensive coordinator since 2008, retired after last season. Jim O’Neil, the new DC, has 11 years of experience in the NFL, but he has his work cut out for him. The Wildcats return only 2 of their top 6 tacklers and lost a 1st-round draft pick at corner.

And given the potential volatility at the QB position, as mentioned below, the deck is stacked against Northwestern.

The good news is that the schedule is very favorable — a 4-0 start is within reason. And Northwestern somehow avoids the top 3 teams in the East (Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana). Northwestern has legit stars, like safety Brandon Joseph and left tackle Peter Skoronski. But so many players are unproven.

The QB decision was certainly surprising

About a week ago, Northwestern announced that Hunter Johnson, who transferred from Clemson 2 years ago, had won the starting quarterback job. That was a surprise to many, including me, because it seemed like a forgone conclusion that South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski would win the job.

Obviously Johnson has improved, or else Fitzgerald wouldn’t have come out and named him the starter well in advance of the season-opener. But this has to make fans a little nervous, right?

Johnson, a former 5-star recruit and the No. 2 pro-style QB of the 2017 class, came to Northwestern because he didn’t want to sit behind Trevor Lawrence, which is obviously understandable. But he didn’t live up to the hype at all, completing only 6 of 17 passes with 2 interceptions against Stanford in the 2019 season opener. It didn’t get any better from there, as he finished with just 1 TD pass and 4 INTs and an abysmal 4 yards per attempt across 6 games.

Most concerning is, Johnson was outplayed by pretty much everyone that season. Former walk-on TJ Green probably would’ve held onto the job if not for suffering a season-ending injury in the opener. Aidan Smith wound up starting 6 games that season, and that was really the only season he ever saw the field. Even Andrew Marty, who is still on the team, threw 2 TD passes that year and led Northwestern to a win over Illinois.

So, what do we make of the fact that Johnson is now the starter again? Well, maybe there was too much pressure on him as a 5-star transfer and now he’ll be more equipped to handle it. Maybe he didn’t have any weapons around him on that awful 2019 team that went 3-9 with one of the worst passing offenses (though as mentioned above, he was outplayed by the other 3 QBs). Maybe he learned last year as the backup to Peyton Ramsey.

You just have to wonder how he’ll handle it mentally if he gets off to a shaky start and how quickly Fitzgerald might make a change.

So it’s fair to wonder, is Northwestern about to bottom out again?

Northwestern has won 2 of the last 3 West titles, yes. But sandwiched between those great seasons was the 3-9 debacle in which Northwestern went 1-8 in the Big Ten. After going 10-3 in 2015, the Wildcats went 5-7 the next 2 seasons.

It simply isn’t as easy for a program like Northwestern to just reload every year. While Northwestern can challenge Iowa and Wisconsin in a given year in the West, it doesn’t have nearly as high of a floor as those 2 programs.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Michigan State (L)

I think this will be the biggest surprise of Week 1. The last time we saw Hunter Johnson, he was not good. Like, at all. I think he’ll need some time to get going. Northwestern also needs to figure out who its primary ball-carrier will be.

Week 2: vs. Indiana State (W)

Indiana State didn’t have a season in 2020 thanks to COVID, so it will be 645 days between games for the Sycamores.

Week 3: at Duke (W)

For whatever reason, Northwestern struggles against Duke on the gridiron, having dropped games in 2017 and 2018 despite going 10-3 and 9-5, respectively. Iowa and Nebraska? No problem. But mighty Duke? And the games haven’t been close either, as Northwestern has lost by 24 and 14. This season, Duke returns only 12 starters and should be near the basement of the ACC.

Week 4: vs. Ohio (W)

Ohio is a threat for its first MAC title since 1968, even though it is always in contention. Call the Bobcats the Iowa of the MAC East. Anyways, this one will be close.

Week 5: at Nebraska (L)

These teams always play close games with 8 of the last 10 decided by 1 score or less. I like Nebraska’s experience in this one, though.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Rutgers (L)

Rutgers has shown a ton of improvement already under Greg Schiano, and it’ll be hunting for its first bowl since 2014.

Week 8: at Michigan (L)

I don’t think this is a great matchup for Northwestern, as Michigan, despite recent struggles, simply is more athletic. And playing in the Big House helps, too.

Week 9: vs. Minnesota (L)

This is the most experienced team in the Big Ten against the least experienced team in the Big Ten. Even on the road, I’ll take the more seasoned group. Tanner Morgan looks to be in store for a bounce-back season.

Week 10: vs. Iowa (W)

This is a bet on Pat Fitzgerald to find a way against a team that Northwestern always seems to give trouble. As you can see, I don’t think 2021 will be Northwestern’s year, but there will be a game or 2 that the Wildcats pull an upset and beat someone they shouldn’t. Considering Northwestern has won 4 of the last 5 against Iowa, this seems like a reasonable prediction.

Week 11: at Wisconsin (L)

Northwestern’s win over Wisconsin legitimized the Wildcats in the eyes of the national media. But this season’s game shouldn’t be much of a contest.

Week 12: vs. Purdue (W)

As long as Brandon Joseph and company can contain David Bell, I like the Wildcats at home.

Week 13: at Illinois (L)

Illinois has to win this game sometime, right? Northwestern has won 6 straight in this series and dominated once again last year. But I am betting on the Illini showing a ton of improvement from the start of 2021 to the end under 1st-year head coach Bret Bielema.

2021 projection: 5-7, 6th in B1G West

Missing out on a bowl will sting a fan base that has gotten so used to not only going to bowl games, but winning them, with 4 straight dating to 2016 (including 2 against SEC teams). That’s how good Fitzgerald has it going.

A subpar season with everything working against Fitzgerald won’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for Fitzgerald or this program. This is a rebuilding season in Evanston.