The Northwestern Wildcats have their eyes on a Big Ten championship after coming up short in last year's conference title game. And with the Big Ten opening the 2021 college football season by having its teams jump into conference play right away, they'll open against a team they've become very familiar with recently. Up first: A hungry Michigan State team that's entering its second season under head coach Mel Tucker.
Northwestern thrived during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and took home its second-ever Big Ten West title after finishing with a 7-2 record. The Wildcats led Ohio State 10-6 at halftime, but a lackluster second-half performance in Indianapolis prevented them from winning their first conference championship.
The Spartans didn't enjoy nearly as much success with a last-place Big Ten East finish and a 2-5 mark. But after having a full and formal offseason to prepare, MSU looks to orchestrate a bounce-back campaign. Both teams hope to get the 2021 season off on the right foot in what will be the sixth straight year they have faced off. The Spartans hold a commanding 39-20 lead and have won the past two meetings.
Michigan State at Northwestern
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 3 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Northwestern -3
When Michigan State Has the Ball
It's not known who will be taking over at quarterback for the Spartans after Rocky Lombardi transferred to Northern Illinois. Sophomore Payton Thorne and Temple transfer Anthony Russo have been competing against each other, but Tucker has not tipped his hand. Thorne completed 56.5 percent of his attempts for 582 yards and three touchdowns in four games (one start) for Michigan State last season. Russo has plenty of starting experience (26 games) from his time at Temple, where he threw for 6,292 yards and 44 scores in 27 games from 2017-20.
Whoever gets the nod, he will be throwing to junior wide receivers Jalen Nailor (515 yds., 4 TDs in 2020) and Jayden Reed (407, 3), with younger guys like Ricky White and Tre Mosley providing depth. In the backfield, transfers Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest) and Harold Joiner III (Auburn) join holdovers Jordon Simmons and Connor Heyward to provide offensive coordinator Jay Johnson with plenty of options. The Spartans also boast a veteran offensive line that returns all five starters.
Defense has been Northwestern's calling card under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, but longtime coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired and only four starters return from the unit that led the country in both points and passing yards allowed per game last season. New coordinator Jim O'Neil has NFL experience and previously served as a graduate assistant for the Wildcats, and he inherits some talented players, including All-America safety Brandon Joseph, linebacker Chris Bergin, cornerback Cameron Mitchell, and defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore. But filling the shoes of cornerback and first-round draft pick Greg Newsome II as well as stalwart linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher will be easier said than done.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Senior Hunter Johnson is getting another shot at starting under center for Northwestern, as he beat out South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski and fellow senior Andrew Marty for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Johnson has a lot to prove, as he hasn't lived up to his five-star recruiting rating since transferring from Clemson. Johnson played in six games in 2019 but was largely ineffective (46.3 completion percentage, 432 passing yards, TD) and dealt with injuries. Last year, he watched from the bench as Peyton Ramsey transferred in from Indiana and helped the Wildcats win the Big Ten West. In addition to staying healthy, Johnson must also display consistency and control of the offense if he wants to hang onto the job.
JJ Jefferson, Malik Washington, and Berkeley Holman top the depth chart at wide receiver this year (622 combined career receiving yards), while Charlie Mangieri and Trey Pugh anchor the tight end position again (17 combined career catches). And it'll be interesting to see who starts at left tackle now that Rashawn Slater is in the NFL.
The Wildcats suffered a significant blow when Cam Porter, who led the team with 333 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns last year, suffered a season-ending injury during fall camp. Look for offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian to employ a committee approach, as Evan Hull (25 att., 210 yds., 2 TDs in 2020) is the only running back on the current roster who has seen significant game action. Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser, who finished second and fourth on the team in rushing last season, both transferred earlier this year.
Michigan State's defense had its struggles last season trying to adjust to Tucker's preferred 4-2-5 alignment, but seven starters return from that unit. The defensive line should be a strength, with end Jacub Panasiuk serving as one of the anchors and Drew Beesley and Michael Fletcher expected to bring the heat (combined six sacks last season). Tucker will be counting on some transfers to improve the linebacker corps, while cornerback Kalon Gervin is the best of a largely unproven secondary.
The Spartans have dominated the divisional crossover series with the Wildcats, and this marks the sixth straight season these teams have played. Northwestern has won three of the past five meetings, but Michigan State has come away victorious from the past two encounters by a combined score of 60-30. Each team enters this season with question marks on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats are tough at home (4-0 at Ryan Field in 2020), while the Spartans are just 2-5 in their last seven road games. Home-field advantage proves to be the difference on Friday night, as Northwestern snaps its modest losing streak to Michigan State in a close game.
Prediction: Northwestern 20, Michigan State 17
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.