After a surprise run to the Big 10 title game last season, the Northwestern Wildcats start off the Franchise Top 25 in the 25th and final position.
The Wildcats overcame a bleak 1-3 start to the year, and ended a respectable 9-5 after a second half explosion to beat Utah in the Holiday Bowl.
Offensively, the Wildcats may struggle early on. Only five starters return to the offense, and the team will have to replace the production of Clayton Thorson, Northwestern’s all time leading passer.
Northwestern may have a more than capable replacement waiting in the wings however. Former five-star quarterback Hunter Johnson appears primed to step in as the signal caller for the Wildcats.
“Thorson seemed to be there forever, that’s what happens when you get a four year starter,” Louie Vaccher, writer for the Wildcat Report, told the MMM Ranch. “But everybody is very excited to see Hunter Johnson.”
Johnson transferred from Clemson, and after sitting last season, should be able to make an impact in his second year in Mick McCall’s system.
“Rivals had [Johnson] as the number two overall quarterback in 2017 and he just kind of fell into Northwestern’s lap last year,” Vaccher said. “People are excited to see what he can really do. He is a tremendous talent.”
Though experience at the skill positions returns this season, Northwestern will have to replace three out of five starters along the offensive line, a tall task for any program.
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The strength of the Wildcats will be on the defensive side of the football.
“Once again, they’re gonna be the heart of the team,” Vaccher said. “Last year the defense pretty much carried the team.”
Northwestern returns an experienced defense, headlined by defensive end Joe Gaziano and linebacker Blake Gallagher, who earned second and third team all conference honors respectively.
With key cogs in a defense that only allowed 23.2 points per game last season returning, Northwestern will lean heavily on their defense early, hoping Johnson can get up to speed and begin to make an impact with his offense.
Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats enter the season with an impressive 15-1 record against Big 10 opponents in their last 16 regular season games, but the schedule does Fitzgerald no favors this year.
Northwestern will play both Michigan State and Ohio State this season, though the Wildcats will get both of those games at home.
The toughest stretch of the season will come early on, as they host Michigan State, and then must travel to Wisconsin and Nebraska before their mid-season bye week.
Though the deck may appear stacked against Northwestern this season, they are no strangers to being overlooked and counted out.
If Johnson can live up to the five-star rating given to him out of high school, the Wildcats will have a real difference maker under center and could once again find themselves in the hunt to represent the Big 10 West in Indianapolis come December.