Despite the loss of key personnel, the defending Big Ten West champions have plenty of talent returning
The 2020 Northwestern Wildcats football team had one of the best seasons in program history. They won their second Big Ten West Division title, played in their second Big Ten Championship Game, and made their 10th bowl game under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The Wildcats finished with a 7-2 record, as the shortened season helped Northwestern have fewer than three losses for the first time in the Fitzgerald era. The last time that happened was during the Rose Bowl season of 1995 — Fitzgerald was the starting middle linebacker that year — when Gary Barnett coached the Cats' to a 10-2 record and a Big Ten title.
The last time NU had a 7-2 record was back in '62 under the legendary Ara Parseghian. Their win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl marked the fourth straight bowl game win for Coach Fitz, which is another program first. It was certainly a memorable season, but now change is on the horizon. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired, another group of Wildcat players is heading to the NFL, and the team will have to reload at several positions. But Fitzgerald, who has been mentioned for NFL head coach openings the past few offseasons, isn't going anywhere anytime soon after agreeing to a new, 10-year contract that goes through the 2030 season.
Despite the other changes, the Wildcats appear primed to contend again in 2021. There are still some building blocks in place for Northwestern to make another trip to Indianapolis. Here are three reasons for optimism next season.
1. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian
One of the biggest reason's for Northwestern's turnaround is the change in play-calling. Bajakian was brought in to replace Mick McCall, whose offenses continuously finished at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, and among the worst nationally. Bajakian's pro-style/spread hybrid scheme gave the Wildcats a sense of unpredictability. And while the Wildcats weren't exactly putting up video game numbers, they did show significant improvement.
Northwestern improved to be ninth in the Big Ten in total offense (13th in '19), 10th in passing offense (14th in '19), and 10th in scoring offense (11th in '19). With a full offseason to fully implement Bajakian's playbook, the Wildcats could be even better on this side of the ball in '21.
2. Plenty of returning talent
Despite the significant losses from this past season, the Wildcats will still have plenty of returning players to keep this team going next season. Andrew Marty (387 career yards from scrimmage, 6 career total touchdowns) and Hunter Johnson (666 career passing yards) will look to reclaim the quarterback position in '21. Cam Porter, Evan Hull, and Isaiah Bowser (772 combined rushing yards, 8 combined rushing touchdowns in '20) are still in the backfield, while JJ Jefferson (336 career receiving yards), Malik Washington (10.2 yards per catch in '20), and Bryce Kirtz (11.2 ypc in '20) will be the top targets in the passing game, and Charlie Mangieri (appeared in 12 games over the previous two seasons) is expected to be the primary tight end.
The defensive side of the ball will also have some veterans to lean on. Eku Leota (13 tackles, 4 sacks in '20) and Adetomiwa Adebawore (17 tackles, 2 sacks) return to man the front four, Bryce Gallagher (appeared in 14 games over two seasons) will look to fill the shoes of his older brother Blake, while Brandon Joseph (41 tackles, 1 interception last season) and Cameron Mitchell (18 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 5 pass deflections) can lead the secondary. Whomever the next defensive coordinator is will have fun working with these athletes.
3. The Wildcats appear poised to contend again in the Big Ten West
Wisconsin and Iowa will certainly have a say in how things go, but don't expect Northwestern to give up its division crown without a fight. It also doesn't hurt that the rest of the division is unsettled, to say the least. Illinois has changed coaches for the second time since '16, Purdue is coming off its third losing season in four years, Minnesota is exiting its third losing season since '15, while Nebraska has yet to post a winning campaign under Scott Frost (16-20 record). But make no mistake that the West can be won (again) by the Wildcats.
— Gabe Salgado 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.