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Can Pat Fitzgerald take Northwestern from lucky to just plain good?

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Northwestern needed great fortune to be 10-3 last season, but this year's team is interesting in its own right. This is Bill C.'s 128-team season preview, currently powering through the Big Ten.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Bad news, good news

Last offseason, I tinkered with a measure called second-order wins. It is basically my version of the Pythagorean Wins concept, where you look at a certain component (usually points or runs scored and allowed) and determine what a team's record probably should be as opposed to what it actually is. If you're losing a ton of close games but winning a bunch of blowouts, that's probably a sign that, on average, you would be faring better than you are.

My second-order wins concept looks at the single-game win expectancy figures you see in the 2015 Schedule & Results chart below. The idea behind win expectancy is simple: It takes the key stats from a given game (success rates, explosiveness, field position factors, and other factors that end up going into the S&P+ ratings), mashes them together, and says, "With these stats, you probably could have expected to win this game X percent of the time." Add those figures up over the course of a season, and you get a glimpse of what a given team probably could have expected its record to be.

I have play-by-play data going back to 2005, which means I have data for 1344 FBS teams. Of these 1344, only 15 have managed to finish with a win total at least 2.5 games above what win expectancy would have expected. Nine, meanwhile, have ended up at least 2.5 wins below. This is a few standard deviations from the norm. It happens about once or twice per season.

It happened three times in 2015: Boston College finished 2.9 wins below expectation, and both Houston and Northwestern finished 2.8 wins above.

What happens next after a season like this is pretty predictable. Here are some examples on the "bad season" side of the ledger:

  • 2013 TCU should have won about 7.2 games but went 4-8. The Horned Frogs went 12-1 the next year.
  • 2013 Temple should have won about 4.5 games but went 2-10. The Owls went 6-6 the next year.
  • 2011 UCF should have won about 7.8 games but went 5-7. The Knights went 10-4 the next year.
  • 2010 SJSU should have won about 3.9 games but went 1-11. The Spartans went 5-7 the next year.

It's the same story the other way around.

  • 2014 Florida State should have won about 9.5 games but went 13-1. The Seminoles went 10-3 the next year.
  • 2013 Oklahoma should have won about 8.4 games but went 11-2. The Sooners went 8-5 the next year.
  • 2010 Auburn should have won about 10.9 games but went 14-0. The Tigers went 8-5 the next year.
  • 2009 Wyoming should have won about 3.8 games but went 7-6. The Cowboys went 3-9 the next year.

As this is a Northwestern preview, you can probably guess what I'm going to write next: Northwestern had no business going 10-3 last season and will struggle mightily to avoid regression in the win column this coming season.

However ... there are exceptions. On rare occasion, a team will, for lack of a better term, become its record. If you drastically overachieve with a pretty young roster, and most of your key contributors return, there's a chance that natural year-to-year improvement can offset the effects of a second-order regression to the mean.

Call it the Kansas State Exception. In 2011, KSU pulled off what second-order wins would define as one of the least likely seasons of all time; the Wildcats went 10-3 in a really good Big 12 despite ranking just 37th in S&P+. They won eight games by a single possession, and two of their three losses were either semi-competitive (29-16 Arkansas) or disastrous (58-17 Oklahoma).

The next year, KSU won just two one-possession games. But the Wildcats were so stocked and experienced (and to borrow a generic coaching cliché, they so knew how to win) that they became a rather dominant team. They went 11-2, won the Big 12, and finished sixth in S&P+. Their record really didn't improve, but they did, and it offset the effects of any luck they received.

Other teams have seem the same effects. In 2014, for instance, Bowling Green ranked 96th in S&P+ but finished 8-6; the next year, the Falcons got their injured quarterback back, played mostly dominant football in the MAC, rose to 19th in S&P+, and finished 10-4.

This can also become the Northwestern Exception. In 2015, the Wildcats started a redshirt freshman quarterback, gave a sophomore running back 24 carries per game, fielded maybe the most banged up, uncertain offensive line in college football, and dealt with perilous depth in the secondary. That they ranked 56th in S&P+ was almost something of an accomplishment.

In 2016, then, with a far more experienced offense and quite a few returning components from an awesome defense, they should absolutely improve from a ratings perspective. Maybe they don't pull off a Kansas Statian level of improvement, but perhaps the increased experience, combined with the leadership of one of the best close-game coaches in football (through 10 years on the job, Pat Fitzgerald is now 34-21 in games decided by one possession), will lead to a pretty soft landing.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 52 | Final S&P+ Rk: 56
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep Stanford 6 16-6 W 82% 71% +20.0 +22.0
12-Sep Eastern Illinois N/A 41-0 W 96% 100% +16.9
19-Sep at Duke 74 19-10 W 53% 30% +16.6 +12.5
26-Sep Ball State 110 24-19 W 52% 63% -12.2 -14.5
3-Oct Minnesota 55 27-0 W 94% 100% +26.8 +22.5
10-Oct at Michigan 8 0-38 L 10% 0% -23.3 -30.5
17-Oct Iowa 38 10-40 L 16% 0% -35.8 -27.5
24-Oct at Nebraska 36 30-28 W 73% 73% +8.0 +9.5
7-Nov Penn State 47 23-21 W 59% 43% +3.6 -0.5
14-Nov Purdue 93 21-14 W 55% 63% -7.5 -9.0
21-Nov at Wisconsin 32 13-7 W 87% 87% +17.1 +16.0
28-Nov vs. Illinois 65 24-14 W 79% 88% +8.4 +6.5
1-Jan vs. Tennessee 18 6-45 L 12% 0% -34.3 -31.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 21.0 111 15.5 5
Points Per Game 19.5 114 18.6 12

2. Three duds

I got yelled at a lot by Northwestern fans last year for what S&P+ thought of the Wildcats. And to be sure, NU's 2015 season perfectly illustrated the difference between your résumé and your stats. Northwestern went 10-2 and beat eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford; if you're looking at things with an RPI-style lens -- who did you play, and what was your record? -- this was great.

From a play-by-play perspective, though, obvious holes emerged. Win expectancy said the Wildcats had only a 30 percent chance of winning the game against Duke, but they did. They had only a 43 percent chance of beating Penn State, but they did. The ratings aren't going to be very impressed with that, and the ratings really aren't going to be impressed with losing three games by a combined score of 123-16.

When it didn't work for Northwestern, it really didn't work.

  • Northwestern vs. top 40:
    Record: 3-3 | Average percentile performance: 47% (~top 70) | Yards per play: Opp 4.8, NU 3.7 (-1.1)
  • Northwestern vs. everybody else:
    Record: 7-0 | Average percentile performance: 70% (~top 40) | Yards per play: NU 5.0, Opp 4.3 (+0.7)

And when you look at averages instead of record, you certainly start to understand how Northwestern finished just 56th in S&P+.

Again, though, when you look at the youth and injuries NU was dealing with, of course the Wildcats produced a mediocre rating. That can change.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.21 93 IsoPPP+ 86.0 112
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 34.2% 124 Succ. Rt. + 87.4 113
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 31.0 94 Def. FP+ 28.2 42
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 3.5 121 Redzone S&P+ 84.8 118
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.0 ACTUAL 20 -1.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 116 113 113 112
RUSHING 42 99 107 73
PASSING 120 113 110 117
Standard Downs 115 116 110
Passing Downs 98 90 100
Q1 Rk 110 1st Down Rk 109
Q2 Rk 111 2nd Down Rk 117
Q3 Rk 92 3rd Down Rk 114
Q4 Rk 119

3. Bad, with reason

It wasn't too long ago that Northwestern's offense was efficient and dangerous. The Wildcats ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50 each year from 2010-12, and that allowed them to go 23-16 in that span despite a surprisingly iffy defense.

Since 2012, the defense has improved, and the offense has fallen apart. NU was 76th in Off. S&P+ in 2013 and 111th in both 2014 and 2015.

I guess you could say that it's a good sign that Northwestern didn't actually regress offensively last year. Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson struggled drastically for most of the year, and the line protecting him was fielding a different lineup almost every single week.

Longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who has overseen this attack since 2008 had to realize exactly how limited his personnel was and went into full-fledged "protect the defense" mode. After passing more frequently than the national average on both standard and passing downs in 2014 (when senior quarterback Trevor Siemian was behind center), Northwestern skewed run-heavy. Granted, the Wildcats continued to play at a pretty fast tempo, which is not the correct answer on the Protecting Your Defense 101 final exam, but NU's 2015 offense was built around taking the fewest possible chances.

In 2016, the excuses dry up. Every running back is back, and rushing the ball a lot should probably still be the preferred approach, but with a healthier, far more experienced line, the ceiling for the ground game should be higher. And ... goodness, if Thorson doesn't improve, surely someone else on the roster is better? He was really unsuccessful last year, even by freshman standards. His 95.9 passer rating was about as bad as you'll ever see from a full-year starter, and if you take out the Eastern Illinois and Ball State games, the rating sinks to 84.1.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Clayton Thorson 6'4, 220 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9218 150 295 1522 7 9 50.8% 21 6.6% 4.4
Zack Oliver 23 53 267 1 4 43.4% 6 10.2% 4.0
Matt Alviti 6'0, 200 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9114
Lloyd Yates 6'2, 195 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8169
TJ Green 6'2, 190 RSFr. NR NR
Aidan Smith 6'2, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8568

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Justin Jackson RB 5'11, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9284 313 1418 5 4.5 4.4 33.2% 4 2
Clayton Thorson QB 6'4, 220 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9218 79 542 5 6.9 7.6 44.3% 9 3
Warren Long RB 6'0, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8210 60 329 5 5.5 7.7 31.7% 0 0
Solomon Vault WR 5'10, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8394 56 159 0 2.8 2.6 30.4% 1 1
Auston Anderson RB 5'9, 180 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8681 13 56 0 4.3 6.4 30.8% 1 1
Jelani Roberts WR 5'8, 160 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8184 10 36 0 3.6 2.4 60.0% 1 0
Corey Acker WR 5'9, 170 Jr. NR NR 8 82 0 10.3 8.3 62.5% 0 0
Tom Hruby LB 6'3, 240 Sr. NR NR 8 25 0 3.1 1.3 37.5% 1 0
John Moten IV RB 6'0, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539
Jeremy Larkin RB 5'10, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8738







4. Durability is a skill

The only strength the offense seemed to have was Justin Jackson's ability to carry the ball 24 times per game. Most of those carries didn't really go anywhere, but he was able to stand up and take another carry.

The only time Jackson got a break was when Northwestern was losing big. In the Wildcats' three blowout losses, he averaged just 12 carries for 43 yards per game (3.6 per carry). In wins, he didn't dominate, but he was able to grind out about 28 carries for 129 yards per game (4.7). The defense was good enough to control the game, and Jackson was used to move the chains just enough to give the D a breather.

To say the least, leaning on a low-efficiency run game with minimal explosiveness gives you almost no margin for error. And when it didn't work (against Iowa, Michigan, and Tennessee), there was no Plan B.

For Northwestern to improve enough to offset what should be some significant second-order regression to the mean, the offense will have to produce a lot more options. That probably means more opportunities for explosive backup Warren Long and more effective utilization of Solomon Vault, a WR-turned-RB-turned-WR who averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and 4.5 yards per target.

It also means some new receivers have to step up quickly. Superback Dan Vitale and two of the top three wideouts are gone, and while none had any sort of reliable rapport with Thorson (combined: 49 percent catch rate, 40 percent success rate), they were still seen as better options than the backups. And now the backups are in charge. Can players like superback Garrett Dickerson, slot receiver Flynn Nagel and maybe a youngster like Charlie Fessler not only replicate the production of last year's seniors, but exceed it? The bar isn't very high, at least.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Dan Vitale SUPER 64 33 355 51.6% 19.4% 5.5 64.1% 39.1% 1.31
Christian Jones WR 49 23 234 46.9% 14.8% 4.8 40.8% 44.9% 0.91
Mike McHugh WR 6'3, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8013 32 16 160 50.0% 9.7% 5.0 56.3% 31.2% 1.49
Miles Shuler WR 31 15 149 48.4% 9.4% 4.8 54.8% 32.3% 1.23
Justin Jackson RB 5'11, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9284 28 21 162 75.0% 8.5% 5.8 57.1% 32.1% 1.68
Austin Carr WR 6'1, 195 Sr. NR NR 25 16 302 64.0% 7.6% 12.1 36.0% 56.0% 1.95
Garrett Dickerson SUPER 6'3, 245 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9122 21 12 124 57.1% 6.4% 5.9 71.4% 52.4% 1.05
Solomon Vault WR 5'10, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8394 21 11 95 52.4% 6.4% 4.5 38.1% 28.6% 1.34
Cameron Dickerson WR 15 5 38 33.3% 4.5% 2.5 26.7% 20.0% 0.96
Jelani Roberts WR 5'8, 160 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8184 10 8 48 80.0% 3.0% 4.8 80.0% 40.0% 0.96
Flynn Nagel SLOT 5'11, 190 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8640 8 4 47 50.0% 2.4% 5.9 25.0% 37.5% 1.63
Macan Wilson WR 6'0, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8056 2 0 0 0.0% 0.6% 0.0 100.0% 0.0% 0.00
Andrew Scanlan WR 6'2, 215 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8215
Marcus McShepard WR 5'11, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8282
Jayme Taylor SUPER 6'4, 230 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8201
Cameron Green SLOT 6'3, 210 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8535
Charlie Fessler WR 6'4, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8448
Steven Reese WR 6'2, 190 RSFr. NR 0.8143
Ben Skowronk WR 6'4, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8528
Riley Lees WR 6'0, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8506

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 97.3 2.74 3.02 35.2% 58.7% 21.1% 77.1 8.2% 7.1%
Rank 84 90 85 106 110 89 102 116 59
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Geoff Mogus LT 8 31
Matt Frazier RG 9 25
Eric Olson RT 6'6, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8488 12 22
Ian Park RG 6'4, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8479 9 17
Blake Hance LT 6'5, 300 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8538 8 8
Shane Mertz RG 6'8, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8425 7 7
Connor Mahoney LG 6'4, 290 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8208 6 6
Brad North C 6'2, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8510 5 5
Adam DePietro RT
1 2
Tommy Doles LT 6'6, 280 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 0 0
J.B. Butler RG 6'3, 305 So. 2 stars (5.4) NR 0 0
Sam Coverdale LG 6'7, 305 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544 0 0
Ben Oxley RT 6'6, 285 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8528 0 0
Jared Thomas LG 6'4, 275 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8615

Adam Lemke-Bell LT 6'5, 270 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8519

Andrew Otterman LG 6'5, 295 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8215

Cam Kolwich OL 6'4, 265 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8529

Nik Urban OL 6'3, 270 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8522

5. Continuity? What's that?

Each year, we see a few offensive lines get completely wrecked by injury and constant shuffling. Northwestern certainly fell into that category in 2015. The Wildcats started nine different linemen and changed OL starting lineups seven times, and not a single player started all 13 games. Only one started more than nine.

No line will succeed under these circumstances, especially a year after losing three two-year starters from an already shaky line.

The good news: Six players return after starting at least five games last year, including four seniors. Plus, a couple of well-touted redshirt freshmen could enter the rotation. Experience is solid, and upside might be a little higher. So if the Wildcats can keep the same five guys on the field for most of the time, they could develop into at least an average unit.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.14 15 IsoPPP+ 122.3 12
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 35.7% 18 Succ. Rt. + 118.0 11
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 27.7 112 Off. FP+ 30.5 53
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 3.3 3 Redzone S&P+ 114.2 23
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.6 ACTUAL 21.0 -2.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 13 11 11 12
RUSHING 21 22 33 19
PASSING 23 9 5 11
Standard Downs 21 36 13
Passing Downs 10 6 13
Q1 Rk 34 1st Down Rk 13
Q2 Rk 4 2nd Down Rk 11
Q3 Rk 23 3rd Down Rk 22
Q4 Rk 42

6. Opponents played into their hands

The Northwestern defense clicked in 2015. The Wildcats improved on run defense and flipped an average pass defense into one of the best in the country. And even in blowout losses, the defense wasn't to blame. Nationally, teams averaged about 5.8 yards per play; NU allowed just 5.5 while losing 38-0 to Michigan and 5.1 while losing 45-6 to Tennessee. Only Iowa was able to put up above-average yardage.

How did Northwestern's defense go from solid to spectacular in one year? Up front, a well-seasoned defensive line took a step up; meanwhile, middle linebacker Anthony Walker moved straight from being an exciting freshman to one of the best linebackers in the country. And an experienced secondary went from dominating bad passing offenses to dominating all of them. Michigan was the only team all year to produce a passer rating better than 115; the best way to counter having a bad passing offense is making sure your opponent's is just as bad.

Opponents still found the thought of passing more appealing than trying to run the ball. Northwestern's ability to generate leads played a role in that -- you're obviously more likely to throw when you're behind -- but only so much. This was the rare instance where opponents really seemed to play into Northwestern's hands. And the only offense to really do well against this defense did so on the ground: Iowa running back Akrum Wadley rushed 26 times for 204 yards.

The balance might shift back in favor of the run defense this year. Two strong ends (Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson) have departed, but the tackle position is stocked, and Walker is back to again wreck shop in the middle. Meanwhile, four of the top seven in the secondary are gone, including two of the five who took most of the snaps.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 111.6 2.45 3.50 34.0% 78.0% 20.6% 111.2 5.6% 5.5%
Rank 26 12 93 23 116 53 45 46 98
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Dean Lowry DE 13 41.5 6.0% 13.5 3.0 1 6 0 1
Deonte Gibson DE 13 29.0 4.2% 12.5 9.0 0 0 0 0
Tyler Lancaster DT 6'3, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8748 13 25.5 3.7% 5.5 1.5 0 2 2 0
Ifeadi Odenigbo DE 6'3, 250 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9680 12 15.5 2.2% 5.0 5.0 0 0 0 0
Xavier Washington DE 6'1, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8015 13 12.0 1.7% 3.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Jordan Thompson DT 6'3, 275 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8776 13 11.0 1.6% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
C.J. Robbins DT 6'5, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7600 12 11.0 1.6% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Greg Kuhar DT 6'3, 305 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8590 11 8.0 1.2% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Max Chapman DT 13 3.0 0.4% 1.5 1.5 0 1 0 0
Ben Oxley DT
5 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Fred Wyatt DL 6'4, 270 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8504
Joe Gaziano DE 6'4, 255 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8643
Trent Goens DE 6'3, 250 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8590
Tommy Carnifax DE 6'4, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8599
Jake Saunders DT 6'3, 275 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8466
Alex Miller DT 6'3, 260 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8030








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Anthony Walker MIKE 6'1, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8519 13 91.5 13.2% 20.5 4.0 1 4 1 2
Drew Smith SAM 13 47.0 6.8% 10.5 2.0 0 1 1 0
Nate Hall WILL 6'2, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8216 13 41.5 6.0% 2.5 0.0 0 2 0 0
Jaylen Prater SAM 6'0, 230 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8054 9 35.5 5.1% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Joseph Jones SAM 6'1, 225 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8270 13 16.0 2.3% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Cameron Queiro MIKE 6'1, 225 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8304 13 6.5 0.9% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Brett Walsh WILL 6'1, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8285
Nathan Fox MIKE 6'2, 245 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8585
Simba Short SAM 6'2, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539
Tommy Vitale WILL 6'3, 220 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8503
Jango Glackin LB 6'2, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8547








7. No simple tackling machine

Anthony Walker was a perfectly decent recruit in the class of 2013. Given a mid-three-star rating, he graded out 61st among OLBs per the 247Sports Composite. Guys in that recruiting range can develop into strong contributors and leaders on solid defenses. Walker has done just a little more than that.

After a solid redshirt freshman campaign in 2014 (nine tackles for loss, five passes defensed) Walker exploded last fall, not only generating the type of tackle totals you often see from the middle linebacker position, but also creating havoc. Only two linebackers made more tackles for loss in 2015 -- Louisville's Devonte Fields and Arizona State's Antonio Longino -- and they both did so from attacking positions.

Walker was the best of all worlds, and he returns this fall. He'll be asked to do quite a bit as Northwestern attempts to replace quite a few attackers -- ends Lowry and Gibson, SAM linebacker Drew Smith -- but with how his career has developed so far, he'll probably succeed. And players like ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington and SAMs Jaylen Prater and Joe Jones should be able to produce enough to keep attention off of him.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Godwin Igwebuike S 6'0, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8788 13 69.0 10.0% 4.5 0 0 5 1 0
Traveon Henry S 12 61.0 8.8% 3 1 2 4 0 0
Matthew Harris CB 5'11, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8268 11 39.0 5.6% 1 0 4 13 1 0
Keith Watkins II CB 5'11, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8513 12 35.0 5.1% 1 0 0 6 0 0
Nick VanHoose CB 12 34.5 5.0% 1 0 3 12 1 0
Marcus McShepard CB
13 11.0 1.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Terrance Brown S
8 6.5 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kyle Queiro S 6'3, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8503 5 6.5 0.9% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Jared McGee S 6'1, 215 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7885 5 4.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Montre Hartage CB 6'0, 180 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7959 13 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Parrker Westphal S 6'1, 190 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9379
Trae Williams CB 5'11, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8345
Alonzo Mayo CB 5'11, 170 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8060
Jake Murray S 6'3, 200 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7989
Roderick Campbell CB 6'0, 180 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8677








8. A test of depth in the back

Despite only two regulars playing all 13 games, the Northwestern secondary was spectacular. The Wildcats leveraged opponents into pass-heavy situations, and the secondary did the rest.

That three of five regulars return is a sign that the pass defense might only slip so far, if at all. Corners Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II are exciting, and safety Godwin Igwebuike, like Walker, went from intriguing to all-conference-caliber in his sophomore year.

But everybody else is gone. Less proven players like safety Kyle Queiro (who missed most of last year with an arm injury) and sophomores Jared McGee and Montre Hartage will have to play larger roles. And if former four-star recruit Parrker Westphal wants to start living up to his recruiting hype, all the better.

You have to figure the pass defense regresses a bit, simply because of how good it was last year. It's hard to maintain that level, but Northwestern will have a chance.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Hunter Niswander 6'5, 235 Jr. 85 38.0 2 30 21 60.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Matt Micucci 5'11, 185 Sr. 32 57.5 7 1 21.9%
Jack Mitchell 6'3, 210 Sr. 26 61.3 13 0 50.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jack Mitchell 6'3, 210 Sr. 25-28 16-19 84.2% 2-8 25.0%
Arthur Omilian 1-1 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Solomon Vault KR 5'10, 190 Jr. 25 26.3 2
Miles Shuler KR 4 23.3 0
Miles Shuler PR 11 10.0 0
Flynn Nagel PR 5'11, 190 So. 2 -1.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 115
Field Goal Efficiency 108
Punt Return Success Rate 116
Kick Return Success Rate 69
Punt Success Rate 82
Kickoff Success Rate 104

9. 10 wins despite injuries, youth, and bad special teams

As I've mentioned before, my colleague Bud Elliott has espoused a theory that while close games are frequently decided by luck and randomness, you can shift the odds a bit in your favor with the combination of coaching, quarterback play, and place-kicking/special teams. Northwestern won 10 games despite the latter two. Solomon Vault was explosive, if relatively all-or-nothing in kick returns, but that was basically the only strength. NU sacrificed field position with short punts and kickoffs, and Jack Mitchell was below average in terms of place-kicking.

Everybody's back, which means this probably won't be worse. But it might not be better.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Western Michigan 65 6.1 64%
10-Sep Illinois State NR 23.3 91%
17-Sep Duke 51 4.1 59%
24-Sep Nebraska 26 -2.9 43%
1-Oct at Iowa 38 -6.5 35%
15-Oct at Michigan State 22 -11.9 25%
22-Oct Indiana 56 4.8 61%
29-Oct at Ohio State 14 -14.7 20%
5-Nov Wisconsin 37 0.4 51%
12-Nov at Purdue 88 4.7 61%
19-Nov at Minnesota 42 -5.4 38%
26-Nov Illinois 76 8.2 68%
Projected wins: 6.2
Five-Year F/+ Rk 4.1% (54)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 46 / 43
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 2.6
2015 TO Luck/Game -0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (68%, 58%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (2.8)

10. Lucky, then good?

The Wildcats are also projected to win just six games, which would mark massive regression. This obviously sets strange expectations for Northwestern in 2016.

Honestly, I think stability on the offensive line could push Northwestern toward the top 40, and Fitzgerald's in-game coaching will probably result in an extra half-win or win on top of the projection. With what the Wildcats return, I would be surprised if they fell all the way to six wins. But that will be dependent on how well they play at home.

Northwestern plays six FBS opponents at home this year, and S&P+ gives the Wildcats between a 43 and 68 percent chance of winning in each game. Go 5-1 or 6-0 in these relative tossups, and the Wildcats could become a factor in the Big Ten West race despite a rough road slate (Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State).

That might be too much to ask, but who knows? Maybe randomness will be the Wildcats' friend again in 2016.