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Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Buy or Sell: 2020 Northwestern Wildcat Football

August 18, 2020

In recent weeks, Brandon Vogel and Derek Peterson have been running through Big Ten programs for a “Buy or Sell” kind of opponent preview. We’ll keep the list here for those just jumping in and want to recap:

Brandon Derek
Indiana Hoosiers Buy Sell
Maryland Terrapins Sell Sell
Michigan Wolverines Buy Sell
Michigan State Spartans Sell Sell
Ohio State Buckeyes Sell Buy
Penn State Nittany Lions Buy Buy
Rutgers Scarlet Knights Buy Buy
Illinois Fighting Illini Sell Sell
Iowa Hawkeyes Sell Sell
Minnesota Golden Gophers Sell Buy

How many coaches in the country just command the benefit of the doubt at this point in their career? Whatever your shortlist looks like, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald belongs on it. Northwestern went 3-9 last season, but that was just the fourth time the program had failed to qualify for a bowl game in Fitzgerald’s 14 years at the helm. Injuries played a part. A brutal transition from former stalwart quarterback Clayton Thorson to the next era played a part. With answers now to key questions, Northwestern looks rather good on paper heading into 2020. Buying or selling?

Brandon Vogel: Buy

Prepare for Northwestern to be pretty trendy among the statheads this offseason and ignored by almost everyone else. As a card-carrying member of the former category, this is an unqualified “buy” for me. I get the other perspective, though. Northwestern’s offense was truly atrocious in 2019. The Wildcats couldn’t run the ball (98th in adjusted rushing yards per play) and really couldn’t throw it, averaging 3.7 yards per attempt when you include sacks (130th). But the depths to which the offense sank last season is good news in the new one; it would be almost impossible for the Northwestern offense to be worse in 2020. And, because we’re talking Pat Fitzgerald, the offense in all likelihood only has to provide the most basic level of support. Last year’s defense was damn-near elite—32nd national in success rate allowed, 10th in explosive plays percentage—when you consider that it got almost zero help from the offense. Every defensive drive, almost by default, was from a disadvantaged position, but the Wildcats—led by three stalwart linebackers, all of whom return—remained competitive. With more than 75% of last year’s passes defended and tackles returning, this is a team poised for a bounce back. How big of a bounce? That will depend on the offense, most likely, but Pat Fitzgerald made perhaps the best transfer addition in the league with former Indiana starting quarterback Peyton Ramsey joining the program. He’s about as steady a quarterback as you’ll find in the country, and that’s exactly what Northwestern needs—sure quarterback play that lets the defense lead the way. The season-opener at Michigan State could give us an early look at just how dangerous the Wildcats will be. I wouldn’t pick them to vault back to double-digit wins in 2020, but, in what looks like a wide-open West, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them in the division race deep into November. The only thing that would surprise me is if Northwestern isn’t significantly better than it was a year ago. Everything on paper says that last season’s swoon was more of a blip than a trend.

Derek Peterson: Buy

Hello, big Peyton Ramsey fan. Actually, a card-carrying member of the fan club. No returning quarterback in the conference has more playing experience than Ramsey (633-for-952 in three seasons), and only one person (Wisconsin’s Jack Coan) has a higher career completion percentage than Ramsey’s 66% clip. He’s a career 2:1 touchdown-to-turnover guy with significant P5 experience, and those kinds of quarterbacks just don’t come around often. Ramsey lost the job to Michael Penix Jr. at Indiana and elected to transfer. I wonder if the difference in athleticism played a role, but at Northwestern, Ramsey doesn’t have to be dynamic, he just has to be what he’s been. As Brandon points out, Northwestern’s defense was very Northwestern. The campaign looked awful because the offense was dreadful, but coach Pat Fitzgerald got his usual brand of “Make You Earn It” defense. The Wildcats were 27th in yards per pass allowed, 28th in overall yards per play allowed, and 36th in yards per carry. That unit being once again led by linebackers Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher and Chris Bergin—three guys with a combined 716 career tackles and 43 tackles for loss—should once again make Northwestern just a gigantic pain in the rear of offensive coordinators this upcoming season. The road schedule sees the Wildcats travel to East Lansing, Happy Valley, Iowa City, West Lafayette and Minneapolis, so no favors there. Michigan State comes in Week 1, though, and the more veteran side might be able to pounce on a Spartan team breaking in a new coaching staff and quarterback. Perhaps Northwestern can build up some momentum early. Returning to the bowl scene should be the expectation with this much back from last year’s team. Beyond that, I’m not sure what we’re going to get from them. Could be a 5-7 team, could be a 7-5 team a handful of close losses away from something special.

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