The Wildcats rank No. 59 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2020
After Northwestern defeated Illinois to complete a miserable 3–9 season, coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t subtle. “This is never happening again,” he told players in the locker room. Northwestern is determined to show that 2019, the worst season in Fitzgerald’s 14-year tenure, is an outlier and not a harbinger of an extended downturn.
Northwestern needs a jolt on offense and hired veteran play-caller Mike Bajakian to provide one. Bajakian takes over a unit that last year ranked 126th in scoring (16.3 ppg), 128th in passing TDs (six), and last in yards per pass attempt (4.5).
The internal belief is that if Northwestern gets moderate upgrades at quarterback, the team should be back in the Big Ten West race. The defense held up decently last season, and most of the back seven returns. If recent recruiting gains pay off with the overdue changes on offense, Northwestern could approach its typical output under Fitzgerald (7.1 wins per season).
Previewing Northwestern's Offense for 2020
Bajakian’s arrival is seismic, as Fitzgerald had retained the same coordinator (Mick McCall) since 2008. The offense bottoming out forced a change, but the unit hadn’t been lighting it up. From 2015 to 2018, Northwestern ranked 106th nationally in scoring (24.7 ppg) and 110th in plays of 20 yards or longer (203), despite ranking 24th in win percentage (.679).
In Bajakian, Fitzgerald gets a play-caller who embraces complementary football and the run game, but also knows offenses need big plays to succeed. Bajakian takes over a quarterback room that fell apart in 2019 but could improve. The big reason: Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana who started 23 games and passed for 5,329 yards the last two seasons. Ramsey is a proven Big Ten starter who should stabilize the position. Northwestern also regains veteran reserve TJ Green, who broke his foot in the 2019 opener and likely would have started all season. Hunter Johnson, the heralded Clemson transfer who struggled mightily in 2019, gets a clean slate with no expectations, and junior Andrew Marty also returns.
Northwestern also must get more from its receivers. Senior Riley Lees (91 career receptions) leads the group, but Bajakian must identify other options, especially potential deep threats. Junior Berkeley Holman averaged nearly 14 yards per catch in limited work last season, while senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman should see more targets. Bajakian will feature tight ends, but Northwestern needs playmakers to emerge after the group generated only seven receptions for 30 yards last fall.
The run remains Northwestern’s strength, especially with Isaiah Bowser (91.9 ypg in Big Ten play in 2018) healthy after logging only 59 carries last season. Sophomore Drake Anderson is a solid second option, and Kyric McGowan’s explosive speed could lead to an enhanced role. The offense’s overall ineptitude obscured an uptick in line play under assistant Kurt Anderson, who returns four starters, including NFL prospect Rashawn Slater, and welcomes the program’s top recruit in Peter Skoronski.
Previewing Northwestern's Defense for 2020
The team’s signature unit should thrive under 72-year-old Mike Hankwitz, back for a 13th season as coordinator after some minor arm-twisting. Since 2015, Northwestern ranks 18th nationally in defensive efficiency and 17th in total touchdowns allowed.
The Wildcats return a seasoned linebacker group, headlined by Paddy Fisher, a three-year starter and two-time All-Big Ten selection who has 315 career tackles and nine forced fumbles. Fisher last season played second fiddle to Blake Gallagher, who led Northwestern in tackles (91) and interceptions (three). Fellow senior Chris Bergin enters his second year as a starter.
Northwestern’s secondary also should be a strength, especially if cornerback Greg Newsome II stays healthy. Senior safeties Travis Whillock and JR Pace both have received All-Big Ten recognition, and cornerback Cameron Ruiz shows playmaking promise. Continued development from young players like safety Bryce Jackson and cornerback A.J. Hampton will be key.
The defensive line has the most to replace but also the strongest history of reloading. If Earnest Brown IV stays healthy, he should help fill the pass-rushing void left by Joe Gaziano, Northwestern’s all-time sacks leader. Other linemen like Eku Leota and Jason Gold Jr. step into bigger roles to complement Samdup Miller, a three-year starter at end, and veteran tackles Jake Saunders and Trevor Kent.
Related: Big Ten 2020 Football Predictions
Previewing Northwestern's Specialists for 2020
Kicker Charlie Kuhbander is back for his fourth year, trying to capture the form of his first, when he made 13 field goals. Northwestern has found a new punter in Kent State graduate transfer Derek Adams. Lees leads a return game that finished in the middle of the league in 2019, and he will likely get help from McGowan and others.
Northwestern needed a new voice on offense and likely a new quarterback, too. In Bajakian and Ramsey, it adds two proven pieces who could help restore bowl eligibility. Northwestern needs a senior-laden defense to lead the way, and to get better luck on the health front. The Wildcats also must navigate a tricky start: Michigan State (road), Tulane (home), Central Michigan (home), Penn State (road).