Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Northwestern football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series concludes in the Big Ten West with Northwestern.
It’s understandable that Northwestern finally had a 3-win season, given the academic requirements are significantly greater and limit the talent pool more so than any Big Ten school.
That it happened the year after Northwestern won the Big Ten West and had a former 5-star quarterback transfer in from Clemson was a little baffling, though.
After struggling like it never has in Pat Fitzgerald’s 14-year tenure, Northwestern is looking for some new faces in key roles to make all the difference. Peyton Ramsey transferred in from Indiana to be the starting QB and former Boston College assistant Mike Bajakian takes over at offensive coordinator.
Fitzgerald’s reputation as one of the Big Ten’s top coaches is safe for now, but if the Wildcats have another season like 2019, it might not be quite as secure.
2019 record: 3-9 (1-8, 7th in B1G West)
In Ramsey they trust
It’s hard to overstate just how bad Northwestern’s passing game was last season. The Wildcats finished last in the country in yards per passing attempt at 4.5, which was the worst in that category since New Mexico State averaged 4.2 in 2009. Northwestern put up just 117 passing yards per game, which was 126th in the country — behind an Air Force team that averaged only 9.7 pass attempts per game.
It was surprising to see Hunter Johnson, the former No. 2 pro-style QB in the 2017 class who was ranked ahead of Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm, struggle after transferring in from Clemson.
But Ramsey steps in with an opportunity to lead a team that looks pretty good and should be able to compete — as long as it gets competent QB play. Ramsey lost his starting job at Indiana to talented sophomore Michael Penix Jr. and filled in admirably in leading Indiana to its best season since 1993.
Ramsey isn’t a savior, though. For as well as he played last season (13 TD, 5 INT and 8.2 yards per attempt), there’s a reason he was beat out by Penix. He was not great as a sophomore, finishing with 19 TD and 13 INT. Interceptions aside, he is very accurate, never completing less than 65 percent of his passes in a season. In the 25 games in which he has attempted 20 passes or more, he has completed 60 percent or better in 17 of them.
Ramsey will be a steadying presence for Northwestern and put it in position to win games.
This season comes down to the offense
Getting rid of offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who had been on staff for 12 years, couldn’t have been easy for Fitzgerald.
But it had to be done. That’s because Northwestern’s defense was actually pretty good in 2019, finishing 25th in total defense (335.7 yards per game) and 27th in yards per play (5.1). With players such as Paddy Fisher, leading tackler Blake Gallagher and Samdup Miller back, Northwestern will be tough. It projects to start 8 seniors and 3 juniors.
That means if Northwestern can be halfway decent on offense, it should be vastly improved.
Bajakian’s offense is likely to be up-tempo and catered to his personnel. He coached Antonio Brown at Central Michigan and Travis Kelce at Cincinnati, so he understands the importance of getting his most-talented players the ball. Last year, that meant pounding the rock with 2nd-round pick AJ Dillon, as Boston College finished 4th nationally in rushing attempts.
One area that should be dramatically improved is with turning the ball over. Northwestern ranked 115th nationally with 24 turnovers, while Boston College was tied for 8th with 12. That’s an extra possession per game.
Can Northwestern overachieve again?
Northwestern probably has the least amount of pure talent in the Big Ten, at least according to 247’s Team Talent Composite. It is the only team in the conference with just 3 4-star players, joining Virginia, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Washington State, Arizona, Kansas State and Kansas as the only Power 5 programs without at least 4 4-star players on the roster.
Making matters worse, Northwestern’s top overall player, offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, opted out and is headed for the NFL.
That means the Wildcats are going to have to overachieve if they want to contend in the West again. Northwestern does have 9 starters back on each side of the ball, though. If Fitzgerald can win with this group, he will remind people why he is always a top name on the coaching carousel for those who believe he would ever leave Evanston.
Week 1: vs. Maryland (W)
Northwestern was slated to open the season at Penn State in the first modified schedule, and instead, it gets Maryland at home. Pat Fitzgerald got the opposite of the Scott Frost treatment here, huh? Anyways, this is a great game for Northwestern to open with. Maryland has some talent, but it is young and has a new starting QB (either Taulia Tagovailoa or Lance LeGendre, both of whom were 4-star recruits).
Week 2: at Iowa (L)
It will be very interesting to see how inexperienced Iowa QB Spencer Petras handles a very experienced defense that was probably even better than its numbers indicated last season (due to that woeful offense).
Week 3: vs. Nebraska (L)
Nebraska has way more talent than Northwestern, but it is still a relatively young team. Northwestern should be able to keep this close, like the 13-10 loss last season. Whichever team gets more plays from their QB will win. I think Adrian Martinez will make a few big plays, and that will be the difference.
Week 4: at Purdue (L)
Without Rondale Moore, I probably pick Northwestern. But those Purdue wideouts are so dynamic.
Week 5: vs. Wisconsin (L)
Wisconsin does everything better than Northwestern, so it’s tough to pick against the Badgers.
Week 6: at Michigan State (W)
Northwestern is very fortunate with its 2 crossovers as Michigan State and Maryland project to be in the bottom 3 of the East. The Wildcats should take advantage and win both.
Week 7: at Minnesota (L)
I think Minnesota will be in contention for the West title at this point and have every reason to pull out a W at home.
Week 8: vs. Illinois (W)
In the annual rivalry game to end the regular season, Northwestern continues its run of dominance with its 6th straight win in the series.
2020 projection: 3-5 (6th in B1G West)
It’s probably not what Northwestern is looking for given all the experience it has back, plus a good transfer QB. But it’s still a step up from last year’s 1-8 record in the Big Ten.