Northwestern is a terrific academic school. From an NCAA football perspective? Not a ton of success. But the 2015 team was one of the school's best. That said, oddsmakers only give this season's Wildcats a wins total of 6.5 on college football odds.
Recapping Northwestern's 2015 Season
NU entered last year off back-to-back 5-7 seasons. Those disappointing campaigns ended a five-year run of bowl appearances that included a 10-win season in 2012. Thus Coach Pat Fitzgerald was a bit on the hot seat in 2015.
The Wildcats were an interesting team last year, but frankly rather boring on offense. They surprised everyone with a 16-6 home win over No. 21 Stanford to kick things off -- those Cardinal ended up winning the Pac-12 Championship Game. NU rolled through the rest of its non-conference schedule and pounded Minnesota 27-0 to start Big Ten play. Thus Northwestern was 5-0 and all the way up to No. 13 in the polls when it visited No. 18 Michigan on Oct. 10.
Then reality hit in back-to-back weeks. The Wolverines destroyed Northwestern 38-0. NU had just 168 yards of offense and gave up an interception return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a score. The following week, Northwestern hosted No. 17 Iowa and it was more of the same as the Hawkeyes rolled 40-10. The Wildcats managed just 198 total yards in that one and turned it over three times.
Fitzgerald's team rallied for five straight wins to close the regular season, including very close calls over solid teams Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin. Thus the Cats finished the regular season 10-2, just the fourth 10-win season in program history. Fitzgerald has been a part of three of those, also playing on the 1995 team and coaching the 2012 squad.
The season ended in very disappointing fashion with a 45-6 blowout loss to No. 23 Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. NU totaled 261 yards and turned it over four times.
So if you want to summarize Northwestern's season, it really didn't match up well with the best teams on its schedule. The defense was excellent otherwise, but the offense was definitely a work in progress all year. The Cats were 114th in scoring offense (19.5 ppg), 116th in total offense (327.0 ypg), 120th in passing offense (138.5 ypg) and last nationally in percentage of plays 10 yards or longer at 14.2.
Looking Ahead To 2016
Northwestern is set to welcome back seven starters on offense and six on defense. As a redshirt freshman last year, quarterback Clayton Thorson looked, well, like a freshman most times. He completed just 50.8 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. That's not good enough, even on a team that is run-heavy. The good news is that running back Justin Jackson also is back and will be the Big Ten's leading returning rusher. He essentially was the offense last year, carrying 312 times for 1,418 yards and five scores. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection and became the fifth player in program history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Jackson is on the 2016 Doak Walker Award watch list. Thorson was the team's second-leading rusher in 2015 with 397 yards on 100 carries.
The defense should again be the strength of the team after that unit finished 2015 ranked 12th in the country in scoring defense (18.6 ppg) and 13th in total defense (318.9 ypg). It led the nation in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (five). That group again will be led by junior linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., who has been named to the Butkus Award watch list as the nation's top linebacker. Walker was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection and third-team All-American in 2015 after leading the Wildcats with 122 tackles and ranking fourth in the country with 20.5 tackles for loss. Walker Jr. was a three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
The Big Ten has its teams playing nine conference games starting this season and NU should be 3-0 entering conference play as it hosts Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke (the Brain Bowl). NU opened as a 7-point favorite on college football odds against WMU on Sept. 3. Meanwhile, the Wildcats won at Duke last year 19-10 behind 19 tackles from Walker Jr. Thorson was just 9-for-23 for 70 yards with two interceptions. Jackson rushed for 120 yards in the game. Fitzgerald has a 33-7 non-conference record in the regular season at Northwestern.
The conference schedule is more difficult this year than last. Of course, all the Big Ten West Division teams are on it. NU has to visit defending West champion Iowa (Oct. 1) but hosts Wisconsin and Nebraska, the other two top contenders in the division. From the East Division, Northwestern has to play at powerhouses Michigan State (Oct. 15) and Ohio State (Oct. 29). That month of October is one of the toughest in school history. The only likely win would be Oct. 22 vs. Indiana.
As noted above, NU's wins total is 6.5 for the coming season on college football picks, with the over a -185 favorite. It is +4000 at BetOnline to win the Big Ten title and +950 to win the Big Ten West.
Free NCAAF Picks: NU isn't winning at Iowa, Michigan State or Ohio State. But every other game is potentially a victory. You know this team will play smart, disciplined football. I project a 7-5 record and would go 'over' the wins total. But the Big Ten West is out of reach.