After coming up aces in 2015 and going 5-0 in one-score games during a 10-3 season, the pendulum swung the other way in 2016. Northwestern went 1-3 in those games last season, finishing 7-6. But with 17 starters returning, including nine on offense, if the Wildcats are karma-neutral in 2017 they should be closer to the 10-win side of things.
Three-time 1,000-yard rusher Justin Jackson is back for his senior season and he’s not the only weapon in the Wildcats’ backfield. Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson made huge gains during his sophomore season, boosting his completion percentage by 7.4 points from 2015, throwing 15 more touchdowns (22 total) while keeping his interception total (9) the same and raising his passer rating by 30 points. If Northwestern has a question mark it’s at receiver, where Austin Carr (1,247 yards in 2016) must be replaced, but almost everything else looks good.
Northwestern puts out remarkably “sound” defenses year after year. These guys know how to play. Last year’s team ranked 31st nationally in pass efficiency defense and all four starters in the secondary return including leading tackler Godwin Igwebuike. The Wildcats held up pretty well against the run most of the time (4.43 adjusted-yards per carry), but teams that weren’t afraid to grind out a classic Big Ten-type win were rewarded. Four of the five teams to beat Northwestern in the regular season in 2016 rushed the ball 40 times or more (and Wisconsin ran it 57 times). Do the Wildcats have the depth to hold up against a similar blunt-force attack in 2017? That might determine this team’s ceiling.
There’s a week-two trip to Duke that will be a little bit tricky, but it’s sandwiched by what should be wins over Nevada and Bowling Green. The Wildcats’ East-Division draw isn’t murder with Penn State, Maryland and Michigan State on the slate, but Northwestern does have to play key division games against Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road. After visiting the Huskers on Nov. 4, however, Northwestern closes with home games against Purdue and Minnesota and the season finale at Illinois. If the Wildcats are still in the division race at that point, it’s not a bad way to close the season.
After 5-7 seasons in 2013 and 2014, Northwestern has posted back-to-back winning seasons and that momentum meets an experienced squad in 2017. The early picks have the Wildcats trending as the second-best team in the West, which will be a new sort of pressure in Evanston, but if there’s a team capable of making the jump it’s probably this one. I’m buying the Northwestern narrative in 2017. The Wildcats are trending UP.