In 1995, the Wildcats won the conference championship outright, going 8-0 in the conference and 10-2 overall on their way to the Rose Bowl. In 2012, Northwestern posted a 10-3 record that included a Gator Bowl victory, their first bowl victory since 1948. In between the great seasons, Northwestern is either awful, or varying degrees of mediocre. The 2014 season was bizarre. Northwestern defeated two ranked opponents in Notre Dame and Wisconsin, and had a 3-2 record on the road. Despite this, the Wildcats posted a 5-7 record for the second straight season. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, 2015 isn’t set to be much different.
The offensive unit has its work cut out. The one true returning cornerstone is running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman last season. Fellow sophomore Solomon Vault is available to spell Jackson, but even then, he and Jackson can’t carry the team alone.
The quarterback position is still in limbo between three players in the wake of Trevor Siemian’s graduation. Fifth-year senior Zack Oliver, redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson are all competing for the starting job, and Alviti and Thorson are both without a career completion.
At this point, the receiving corps doesn’t have the experience to offer some help. Kyle Prater and Tony Jones combined for 858 yards receiving and three touchdowns last season, but they’re both gone. The two leading receivers who return are Cameron Dickerson and Miles Shuler, and they combined for 508 yards and only one touchdown reception in 2014. That is a problem.
However, the Wildcats will have senior Christian Jones back after recovering from a torn ACL, and two young receivers Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary will see plenty of playing time to get experience. But until they gain in-game experience under their belt, Northwestern’s offense will be incredibly pedestrian.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, out of the 14 offensive linemen on the roster, only three of them are seniors. That makes the play of junior Ian Park vital. Park will need to anchor the offensive line while the entire unit builds chemistry as the season progresses.
On defense, Northwestern must compensate for the huge loss of linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Linebacker Nick VanHoose returns with his 59 tackles from last season. VanHoose will no doubt take the place of Ariguzo with his ability to get out into the flat and stop plays on the perimeter, but he will need help from senior Drew Smith and sophomore Anthony Walker for the unit to have any hope of stopping potent Big Ten rushing attacks.
The defensive line has several unanswered questions. Last season, the top eight leading tacklers on the Northwestern defense were either linebackers or defensive backs. The first defensive lineman was ninth on the team. That needs to change this season. But I don’t know if the Wildcats have the talent on the roster to turn that around overnight.
There is good news and bad news about Northwestern’s schedule. The good news is that it doesn’t have to face Michigan State or Ohio State. The bad news is that its non-conference schedule is a gauntlet. Sure, it faces cupcake Eastern Illinois in Week 2, but it opens the season against Stanford at home. It then travels to Duke for Week 3, and closes the season at home against tough MAC opponent Ball State. In the Big Ten, Northwestern has to go to Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. I’m not sure I see the team winning any of those games.
The Wildcats will surprise one or two teams like they do every year, but that is about all I see them doing in 2015. I have them at 4-8 with a 2-6 conference record, finishing sixth in the Big Ten West.
Brooks Hooley is a Junior Big Ten Football writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @brookshooley.