Northwestern is coming off a roller coaster 10-3 campaign in 2015. The Wildcats opened the season 5-0 with an upset win at home over Stanford and upset victory at Duke.

They were ranked No. 13 in the country when they visited Ann Arbor and get destroyed 38-0. The very next week they lost at home to Iowa 40-10.

It looked like Northwestern early season mojo was lost, but then they won their final 5 games to finish 10-2. Any confidence they gained in their strong finish was lost in a 45-6 defeat to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

Either way it was another fine season under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is now 70-56 in 10 seasons here. Even with last year’s success, the Wildcats aren’t getting a ton of respect going into 2016. Let’s take a look if Northwestern has what it takes to play spoiler in the Big Ten West.

Last Season
Big Ten (West)
ATS Record
Points For
Points Against
6-2 (T-2nd)
2016 Schedule
DateOpponentSpread (Est.)Win Chance
9/3Western Michigan
9/10Illinois State
10/1@ Iowa
10/15@ Michigan State
10/29@ Ohio State
11/12@ Purdue
11/19@ Minnesota
Estimated Wins: TBD

*We take the win chance by using the college football win percentage chart for each point spread.

The non-conference portion of the schedule is a lot more favorable than it was a year ago. With that said, home games against Western Michigan and Duke are not guarantee wins. The Broncos may very well be the best team in the MAC and the Blue Devils will be out for revenge.

The Big 10 portion of the schedule looks challenging. Northwestern has to play 5 conference road game this year, with the Big 10 going to a 9-game slate.

They also draw two of the top teams out of the East in Ohio State and Michigan State. Both of which they have to play on the road. The other is a home game against a talented Indiana team.

The Wildcats do get two of their top threats in the West at home in Nebraska and Wisconsin, but have to go to Iowa.

The big concern I have is all their tough games come in a row to start Big Ten play. They play Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin in succession. The only thing breaking it up is a bye week between road games against the Hawkeyes and Spartans.

Roster Breakdown

Northwestern will have 6 starters back on offense and it’s hard to imagine they will be any worse than 2015. The Wildcats ranked dead last in the Big Ten with 19.5 ppg and 327 ypg.

Part of the problem last year was they had an inexperienced quarterback. Red-shirt freshman Clayton Thorson started all 13 games. He completed just 51% of his passes for 1,522 yards with 7 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. He did provide some help to the running game with 397 yards and 5 scores.

The hope is that experience will lead to a big jump in Thorson’s production in 2016. On the downside, Northwestern has to replace all 3 starters at wide receiver. If he’s going to take that next step, he’s going to need someone to emerge as the go-to target.

The good news is that starting running back Justin Jackson returns. Jackson managed to rush for 1,418 yards in 2015. That’s quite an accomplishment with teams knowing they couldn’t throw the ball. Jackson enters his junior season as one of the best the Big Ten has to offer at the position.

Another positive for the offense is they have 4 of the 5 starters back on the offensive line. Plus, a couple other linemen who have starting experience. It’s far from one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten, but will be better than what they had a year ago.

While the offense struggled to score points, the defense more than made up for it. The Wildcats allowed just 18.6 ppg and 319 ypg. Their best marks in 20 years. While they only have 6 starters back, they should be strong again on this side of the ball.

A big reason for that is the return of All-American linebacker Anthony Walker. Not only did he lead the team with 122 tackles (87 next best), he had 4 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Fellow starter Jaylen Prater and sophomore Nate Hall will make up one of the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten.

Northwestern also looks strong in the secondary. Even with the losses of starting corner Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry. They get back 3rd-Team All-Big Ten corner Matthew Harris and strong safety Godwin Igwebuike.

There are some question marks on the defensive line. They get back tackles Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson, but lose both starting ends. Finding someone who can put pressure on the quarterback up front is critical for 2016.

Future Odds

Regular Season Win Total
Big Ten West Odds
Big Ten Championship Odds
Playoffs Odds
National Championship Odds
Odds Courtesy of 5Dimes

*Odds updated live on our college football odds page

Season Predictions

There’s going to be those that include Northwestern in the race for the top spot in the West. I’m not one of them. I think the Wildcats were fortunate to get to double-digit wins last year.

Yes, they upset Stanford in the opener, but that was a fluke. In there other 3 games against top teams they were destroyed. They also had 7 wins by 10-points or less.

I’m not convinced Thorson will be that much better throwing the ball. At the same time, the defense isn’t going to be as dominant. Lastly, the Big Ten schedule is tougher this time around. I have the Wildcats going 4-5 inside the conference and 7-5 overall.

2016 Projections
Big Ten (West)
Big Ten Record
Overall Record
Win Total Prediction
OVER 6.5
More College Football Predictions