Wildcats set to defend their Big Ten West title
The Northwestern Wildcats have gone from the hunter to the hunted. After winning their first-ever Big Ten West Division title in the conference's current alignment last season, the rest of the division now has NU on their radar. Despite being the hunted, the Wildcats have their eyes on another trip to Indianapolis where they hope to win their first conference title since 2000. Northwestern has control of their own destiny in this endeavor.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald can once again lead on a strong running game from last year's breakout star Isaiah Bowser (796 rushing yards and 6 TDs after Jeremy Larkin's retirement), along with a veteran presence on defense (24 takeaways, 21 sacks) and experience along the offensive line. But the Wildcats will be breaking in a new quarterback (Hunter Johnson), they have less experience at the superback (fullback/tight end hybrid) position (Cameron Green also retired), and they've gotten slightly younger at wide receiver. But rest assured that Northwestern will have more than enough talent to compete in the Big Ten again.
Another tough schedule lies ahead for Northwestern; And while the Wildcats may not necessarily repeat as division champions, they will play in their fifth straight bowl game without a doubt. Northwestern isn't a national championship-contending program yet but Fitzgerald and company are slowly working their way to that point. This season should be another strong one for the Wildcats.
Athlon asked a few editors and college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Northwestern in 2019.
Northwestern Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2019
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Replicating last year’s win total (nine) and Big Ten West title won’t be easy. However, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team should still remain in the thick of the division title picture. The Wildcats bring back five starters from a defense that held teams to 23.2 points a game last fall. This unit should rank among the best in the Big Ten, especially with All-America linebacker Paddy Fisher leading the way. Northwestern averaged only 24.2 points a game last season, but this unit could improve in 2019. Former five-star recruit (and Clemson quarterback) Hunter Johnson should help this offense stretch the field more with its passing attack. Helped by a plus-seven turnover margin, the Wildcats went 5-2 in one-score games last year. While those numbers could trend the other way this fall, more big plays and production out of the passing game could give Northwestern more margin for error in close contests. Also, the schedule isn’t kind to Fitzgerald’s squad. The Wildcats get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road and catch Michigan State and Ohio State in crossover play.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Northwestern is one of six teams that could make a claim to be a preseason favorite in the Big Ten West (sorry Illinois). As a result, the Wildcats will be in a bunch of swing games that will end up being the difference between a 3-6-ish or 7-2-ish record in league play. The first portion of the Big Ten schedule is tough; after opening with Michigan State at home, they play back-to-back road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska — two of the top teams in the division — before returning home to face Ohio State. The back half of the schedule is far more manageable, especially when you consider that the three toughest games are at home, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota. The Wildcats should have little trouble returning to a bowl game and don't be surprised if they are in contention for a second straight Big Ten West title.
Gabe Salgado (@GabeSalgado82)
A 9-3 record is a damn good season and it is better than where I picked the Wildcats to finish last year. Northwestern has never defeated Ohio State in the Pat Fitzgerald era and I don't see that happening this year (not enough talent). The Wildcats haven't beaten Wisconsin in Madison since 2015 and the Badgers have posted a 17-3 record at Camp Randall Stadium since that loss. I also see Iowa breaking their losing streak to the Cats' as they've done some strong recruiting, they return some key players, and they haven't lost four straight to NU since the 1930s. But the Wildcats will get to enjoy a nice bowl game for the holidays.