2019 Northwestern Wildcats Football Predictions and Odds to Win National Championship
It was, to say the least, an odd season for the Northwestern Wildcats last year. Not an unsuccessful one by any means. Just a weird one. They couldn't play out of their conference at all and got off to a horrible start. But in the Big Ten they forgot how to lose and somehow won their first divisional title. Ran away with it, really. How often do you see a team that winds up 9-5 go 8-1 in their conference - especially a tough major conference? Now Pat Fitzgerald, entering his 14th year at his alma mater, needs to smooth out some of those rough edges a bit and prove that they can do it all again. I'm not particularly optimistic, but then I will readily admit that I didn't see their conference record coming last year, either.
2018 in a Nutshell
They notably started out with a conference game, winning at Purdue. But then came three straight home losses - to Duke, Akron and Michigan. Suddenly they were 1-3, had two bad losses, and seemed to be in a world of trouble. But then they won at Michigan State, beat Nebraska in overtime, won at Rutgers, and Beat Wisconsin. It was again time to leave the conference, which meant it was again time to lose - they fell to Notre Dame by 10 at home. But back in the Big Ten they won at Iowa and Minnesota, and then beat Illinois. They were 0-3 out of conference but 8-1 in the Big Ten. So bizarre. Now, the silly imbalance in the Big Ten meant that they didn't have to play either Ohio State or Penn State, and they lost to Michigan, so it was definitely a qualified 8-1 mark. But no other team in the division was better than 5-4, so qualified or not it was still decisive. That earned them a spot in the Big Ten Championship for the first time, where they predictably lost badly to Ohio State. Then they headed to the Holiday Bowl, where they solidly beat a good Utah team to put a bow on the season.
Key Additions and Departures
The team had only one player drafted, with QB Clayton Thorson going on the fifth round to the Eagles. Thorson was a four-year starter who set a conference record with 53 starts, so his experience leaves a void. But the offense was never exactly sparkling under him, and the Wildcats have a very interesting replacement thanks to this age of endless transfers. Hunter Johnson was a five-star recruit who signed with Clemson in 2016, but left when Trevor Lawrence came on board. He sat out last year with the Wildcats, so has three years of eligibility left. He's by far the best recruit Fitzgerald has ever had in any position, and if he works out he could be a big boost for an offense that desperately needs on - they ranked 100th in scoring last year, and that wasn't a particular outlier for them.
The defense has taken some hits. Montre Hartage, by far the team's best cover corner, is gone. The squad was an ugly 109th against the pass even with him, so his absence is a big concern. Four-year starter Mike Hall is gone at linebacker, though the depth is better there. And DT Jordan Thompson, who keyed the run defense that was the team's strength, is gone as well.
The recruiting class wasn't great, but recruiting has been a weakness for Fitzgerald - though he develops what he gets very well. Showing what an outlier Johnson is to this program, the class this year not only has no five-star players, but no four-stars, either. They rank 52nd nationally in the consensus but just 12th in the Big Ten. Amazing facilities in a great metropolitan area, with a stable coach at a good school with a track record of success - the recruiting struggles here are a bit of a mystery.
Biggest Area of Concern
It's the offense. It was just lousy last year and has been lousy for a long time. Fitzgerald has been very loyal, so offensive coordinator Mick McCall is in his 12th season in the role. He does things in a very Northwestern way. But now he has a very different QB to adapt to. And he needs to develop that player behind an offensive line that is very much a work in progress. There is no certainty that it will all work out well.
Northwestern Wildcats Schedule Analysis
Somehow, the team has a schedule that again is fairly manageable. Their nonconference opponents include a tough game at Stanford to start the season, but then easier games at home against UNLV in Week 2, and UMass in November. They have to play Ohio state this year, but they get them at home, and avoid both Penn State and Michigan. Road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska will be tests, and it's not great that both come in consecutive weeks, but trips to Indiana and Illinois are much easier. They get Michigan State and Iowa at home, which is an edge against teams they match up reasonably well with. And Purdue and Minnesota round out the home slate. It's maybe a slightly worse conference slate than last year, but not by much.
2019-20 Northwestern Wildcats Betting Odds and Trends
Bovada, understandably, has Northwestern listed as a long shot to win the national title at +50000, a price that groups them with a bunch of teams that include top contenders like New Mexico and Northern Illinois. They are tied with Iowa as the seventh choice to win the Big Ten at +2800, behind divisional foes Nebraska and Wisconsin, as well as the top four teams in the much tougher Big Ten East.
2019-20 Northwestern Wildcats Predictions and College Football Picks
They should do better in the nonconference portion of the season - and not just because they can't do worse than last year. And they will mostly be competitive in conference play. They won't beat Ohio State, though, and the best they can hope is for a split with Nebraska and Wisconsin. Sweeping Michigan State and Iowa at home is no lock, either. Six conference wins feels more likely than eight. But that would still have been enough to win the division last year. I don't expect to see them in the Big Ten Championship Game again this year, but I wouldn't rule it out entirely.
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