The Northwestern Wildcats are coming off of another outstanding season under the coaching of former Wildcat linebacker Pat Fitzgerald. Finishing 10-3 last season, Northwestern defied all expectations as many people pegged them as a five or six win team. With a redshirt freshman under center, the departure of safety Ibraheim Campbell, who is now starting for the Cleveland Browns, and a lot of question marks at receiver, it was to be expected. Even still, Northwestern played their tails off, upsetting Stanford week one and beating Duke on the road. Then continued their momentum into the conference season and finished a game behind Iowa for the B1G West title.
Now that the new season is looming, why is it that so many people have pegged the Wildcats to be a seven win team this year after such success? Well the statistic that many people are turning to is the Wildcats’ 5-0 record in games decided by seven or less last season. Many people believe they will be a .500 team in close games this year which will attribute to much more losses than last year. They also state that they have lost a lot of talent on defense and that their defense will not be as successful. The final reason I have seen many people down on the team is that they state that the team still does not have playmakers at receiver.
I have a rebuttal to each one of those arguments brought to light by skeptics. I will work backwards and address the receivers first. Now, is do the Wildcats have a great core of receivers? Maybe not, however, they definitely have guys that can make plays. Their top receiver is Austin Carr who is a solid possession receiver with solid speed. After him many people do not see the talent that Northwestern has. Sophomore Flynn Nagel has great speed on the outside and showed a lot of potential in his freshman year before going down with injury, so Coach Fitz will have high hopes for Nagel’s return. After Nagel you have Solomon Vault. A converted running back and the Wildcats’ return specialist, Vault has the speed and elusiveness to break any play to the house and provides a new dynamic to the receiving core. Those three coupled with Superback Garrett Dickerson, who is a big bodied guy with great hands, Northwestern will seemingly be much more productive through the air.
When looking at the Northwestern defense, they did lose Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Traveon Henry and Nick Van Hoose, which are all talented players, but they replaced them with players that are just as talented. Dean Lowry’s departure makes way for Xavier Washington to step into the full time starting role at defensive end, who, in a backup role, showed the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. The rest if the defense is littered with talent like Matthew Harris at corner, Ifeadi Odenigbo at defensive end, and, if course, All-American Anthony Walker at linebacker. The only cause for concern on the defense seems to be the lack of depth at cornerback, but if veteran safety Goodwin Igwebuike is able to help the young corners grow, there is no serious problem.
Finally is my favorite argument, which is that Northwestern cannot sustain the success they had last year in close games. The reason I like this argument so much is that there is no proof that they cannot sustain that sort of success this year, simply just people thinking it is unlikely. For the sake of argument let's say that Northwestern does end up being a .500 team in close games, going 2-2. Well, what if those two losses are to Ohio State and Michigan State and one of the victories is against Iowa on the road? That would make Northwestern look like a pretty darn good team in that sense. Also it is no guarantee that Northwestern has five close games again this year. Maybe that number goes down to three this year? The point being there are an infinite number of what if scenarios that can happen when it comes to close games but to say the Wildcats are to be a seven win team because they will not win as many close games makes little sense to me.
My final point on that matter is to simply look at the schedule that Northwestern has laid out. It features three very winnable nonconference games at Ryan Field and just five road games the entire season. Their toughest matchup at home is against Wisconsin, a team that is going to be starting a new quarterback this year and that has a grueling first half schedule. The Wildcats have road games against Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State which are all incredibly tough matchups, but last time the Cats played in East Lansing it ended in victory, so anything can happen I guess.
The point in all of this is that Northwestern fans have no need to be worrying over what analysts have been saying on national broadcasts because their talent and scheduling warrants a very good follow-up to their performance in 2015. I personally see them going 9-3 in the regular season then receiving another solid bowl matchup this year. So be sure to look out for these ‘Cats, they may just surprise you.