Northwestern may not put up a flashy record season after season and certainly isn’t considered an elite football program, though it’s not a stretch to say that head coach Pat Fitzgerald is among the elite leaders in the country. Northwestern is one of the top academic schools out there and won’t accept just any athlete for admission, which makes Fitzgerald’s job tougher than most.
The Wildcats have had more success under Fitzgerald than at any point in the program’s 132-year history and are looking to return to winning form following two consecutive 5-7 seasons. It’ll be a tough task though, as the team will be breaking in a new quarterback this season. Trevor Siemian didn’t have much success at the position last season, but it’s always a challenge when you have to start over. At this point, it looks more and more likely that Zack Oliver will be the team’s starter. He’s been part of a competition along with Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson, though Oliver’s experience, Thorson’s lack of experience and Alviti’s failure to develop gives a pretty clear picture of what to expect.
Northwestern’s defense was one of the more solid units in the conference last year, but the team didn’t get much out of the offense. The team will return 14 starters with eight of them being on defense. Ibraheim Campbell and Chi Chi Ariguzo are key contributors who won’t be returning which makes it difficult to project how the defense will perform moving forward. Godwin Igwebuike, who wasn’t a starter last season, was a key piece in their upset of No. 17 Wisconsin, intercepting the Badgers’ quarterbacks three times. Those were his only three interceptions of the season.
The Wildcats may be the toughest team in the Big Ten to project. They have a pretty good defense which should keep them around in a lot of games, but uncertainty at quarterback and less than half of their offensive starters returning may make it difficult for them to score points again this season. They caught a few teams in down seasons last year and should have a tougher conference slate.
Prediction: The Big Ten is on the rise, which makes it unlikely that we’ll see very much — if any — improvement out of the Wildcats. They’re very well coached which means they may pull off an upset or two, but their inexperience on offense will hurt them overall. They’ll teeter on the edge of bowl eligibility, but I expect them to fall short in the end. They won’t beat Wisconsin two years in a row, and Penn State will probably be the most improved team in the conference. They’ll beat Purdue and pick up a win against either Illinois or Iowa. They’ll pull off an upset which will put them on the edge of bowl eligibility, but they’ll also drop one or two non-conference games which will keep them on the outside looking in.
Jason Shawley is a Featured Writer for RantSports.com covering Big Ten Football. Follow him on Twitter @jshawls.