2018 Northwestern Wildcats Season Win Total Picks and Predictions for NCAA Football
2017 Record: 10-3
2018 Las Vegas Season Win Total: 6.0
2018 Season Win Total Picks NCAA Football: 'Over'
Every few years or so Pat Fitzgerald's squad explodes for 10 wins seemingly out of nowhere. Last season was the year. The Wildcats were able to tiptoe through a soft schedule and turn it into a solid campaign, which ended with a bowl win over SEC foe Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.
Fitzgerald doesn't get nearly enough credit for what he's done at Northwestern. He has turned this bottom-feeder program into a squad that is always right at the top of the second tier in the Big Ten. This fall is no exception. Wisconsin is expected to dominate the West Division. But the Wildcats, loaded with experience, are right there leading the pack of teams just a notch below that are trying to knock off the Badgers.
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Senior Clayton Thorson was a third-team all-Big Ten performer last season. He is entering his fourth year as a starter and has an opportunity to go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Northwestern history. Thorson has to take better care of the ball, though. He threw for 3,100 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a sophomore. But last year managed just 2,844 with 15 scores and 12 INTs.
Thorson will have his top two receivers back. And the Wildcats are hoping for a breakout from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown after an underwhelming junior season.
The key to the offense is replacing stud runner Justin Jackson and his 1,311 yards and 11 touchdowns. Whoever steps up to fill that role will be toiling behind a very experienced line. Northwestern has four starters back, including four-year starter Blake Hance at left tackle. This is a slightly-undersized-but-thoroughly-experienced line.
Fitzgerald has routinely fielded some of the Big Ten's best defenses. And last year was no exception. The Wildcats were No. 20 in the country in points allowed and an outstanding No. 9 in the nation against the run. Northwestern was No. 100 in pass defense. But it didn't stop them from yielding just 20 points per game thanks to some stout red zone numbers.
Northwestern needed triple-overtime to get their best win last season, coming versus Michigan State. They also needed overtime to beat the next two best teams on their schedule, Iowa and Nebraska. Beyond that the Wildcats beat a bunch of nobodies. They even faced a third-tier opponent in their bowl game with Kentucky. So while history reads last season as a 10-win campaign, the fact is that Northwestern might have been the weakest 10-win team in the country.
The schedule isn't that much tougher this year. They avoid Ohio State and Penn State out of the East. And they get their three toughest games, Michigan, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, all in Evanston. Northwestern does have to play five Big Ten road games, though, beginning with a tricky Thursday night opener at upstart Purdue.
That Purdue game really is the key to the season. I think the Wildcats will beat Duke, Akron, Nebraska and Illinois at home. I also like them to take out Rutgers and Minnesota on the road. Assuming that they don't pull any upsets - and Fitzgerald teams have 10 outright wins as an underdog over the last four seasons - that leaves the Purdue game as the swing game for Northwestern.
Fitzgerald has averaged 7.7 wins per season over the course of the last 10 years. He won 10 games in 2012 and 2015 and followed those seasons up with five- and seven-win campaigns. I think this number is a little soft, and I like Fitzgerald with 14 returning starters and a veteran quarterback. It will be close, but I can see the Wildcats clawing their way to seven wins.
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