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Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview: Predicting the 2017 season

It’s time to predict just how we see the 2017 Northwestern football season going…game by game of course.

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The offseason for the Northwestern Wildcats has been one of extreme optimism. Everything was coming up roses (pun!) for the Wildcats. The belief was that with the Pinstripe Bowl win in their back pocket and veteran players returning at key offensive skill positions, the Wildcats are ready to contend for the Big Ten title.

Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson form the core of an offense that seems ready to break out after struggling for much of the last two season. The defense loses a key player in Anthony Walker and Ifeadi Odengibo, but returns a talented secondary led by Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Northwestern. Expectations are only rising for the team.

There are still plenty of holes to worry about. The Wildcats replace a lot of talent in their front seven. There is plenty of concern they will struggle to get consistent push and pressure defensively.

The Wildcats also have a lot to replace at wide receiver with Austin Carr graduating following his breakout season. Solomon Vault, expected to fill some of those shoes, was lost for the season thanks to a lower body injury. The Wildcats will need key players to step up to support the stars.

Wildcats Preview Week: Lessons from 2016 | State of the Offense | talking10 Podcast | State of the Defense | Impact Players

And there is always the existential dread that is being a Northwestern fan. All the close games, near misses and almost made it chances that mark Northwestern football.

Everything needs to fall perfectly in place for Northwestern to get to the promised land and a Big Ten West title.

But the path seems open. Wisconsin in in transition and the Big Ten West seems wide open. And Northwestern has the individual talent it would seem to make a big impact. This is the kind of team that would seemingly be the one to break through for Northwestern.

Of course, the team has been in this situation before. After their last bowl win, in fact. And the team struggled, failing to qualify for a bowl game. No one expects that this time around. But the Wildcats have big expectations for this season. As they should.

Let’s get into our schedule and staff predictions, with thoughts brought to you by yours truly, Philip Rossman-Reich.

2017 Northwestern Wildcats Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time/TV Tickets
Saturday
Sep. 2
Wolf Pack Nevada Wolf Pack
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
2:30pm CT
BTN
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Sep. 9
Blue Devils at Duke Blue Devils
Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, NC
11:00am CT
ESPNU
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Sep. 16
Falcons Bowling Green Falcons
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
6:30pm CT
BTN
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Sep. 23
OFF
Saturday
Sep. 30
Badgers at Wisconsin Badgers
Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI
Time TBA
TV TBA
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Oct. 7
Nittany Lions Penn State Nittany Lions (HC)
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
11:00am CT
TV TBA
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Oct. 14
Terrapins at Maryland Terrapins
Maryland Stadium, College Park, MD
Time TBA
ESPN/ESPN2
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Oct. 21
Hawkeyes Iowa Hawkeyes
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Time TBA
TV TBA
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Oct. 28
Spartans Michigan State Spartans
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Time TBA
ESPN/ESPN2
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Nov. 4
Cornhuskers at Nebraska Cornhuskers
Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, NE
Time TBA
TV TBA
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Nov. 11
Boilermakers Purdue Boilermakers
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Time TBA
TV TBA
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Nov. 18
Gophers Minnesota Golden Gophers
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Time TBA
TV TBA
Buy
Tickets
Saturday
Nov. 25
Fighting Illini at Illinois Fighting Illini
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
Time TBA
TV TBA
Buy
Tickets

*courtesy FBSchedules.com.

Philip’s Take: Nevada rated as one of the worst teams in college football last year even with a 5-7 record. This should be a fairly straightforward warmup for Northwestern. A chance to get Justin Jackson going, establish a favored wide receiver and get the defense’s legs wet.

Philip’s Take: Duke is always a tricky game. Especially when the Wildcats have to travel to Durham, where September is often muggy and humid. But the Wildcats have won two straight trips to visit the Blue Devils, including the the last three overall.

Philip’s Take: Beware the MAC. Northwestern learned that lesson last year when the team failed to row the boat and got beat by Western Michigan. This Bowling Green team should not be as good as that Western Michigan team. The Falcons could provide a challenge, but the Wildcats are likely to roll.

Philip’s Take: Northwestern’s Big Ten slate starts with probably its two toughest opponents. The Wildcats have fared well against the Badgers in recent years. But wisconsin’s physical style always seems to wear down Northwestern. With the Wildcats breaking in a virtually new front seven on defense, the Badgers should control the line of scrimmage in this one.

Philip’s Take: Things do not get much easier for the Wildcats in their homecoming game and Big Ten opener against the Nittany Lions. Coming off the team’s surprise Big Ten championship, Penn State has big expectations for this year. With a team likely staggering from a loss to Wisconsin, this could be a time for James Frankling to pick his first win off Pat Fitzgerald.

Philip’s Take: The first Big Ten matchup between Northwestern and Maryland should provide a little bit of a reprieve for the Wildcats. The Terrapins last year were a pretty mediocre offense, but strong in the running game. This road trip to Maryland will not be easy. But Northwestern should be able to survive.

Philip’s Take: If Northwestern wants to be serious about winning the Big Ten West, winning the next two games will be absolutely critical. The Wildcats can probably get away with splitting the openers against Penn State and Wisconsin, but the team needs to separate itself against its rival Iowa. The season gets made or broken in this stretch. This should be a good game, as it usually is.

Philip’s Take: This is another differentiation game for Northwestern that will go a long way to determining its bowl positioning. The Spartans likely remember the 54 points the Wildcats dropped on them last year. Something they will want to make up for as they reestablish their defense and smash mouth running game.

Philip’s Take: After getting through murderer’s row in October, the Wildcats will be looking forward to the end of their schedule. Northwestern may need these games to rally for bowl eligibility, as they did last year. Justin Jackson should be in for a big season and in for a big game against Purdue.

Philip’s Take: Northwestern would love to get some revenge on P.J. Fleck for the loss to Western Michigan last season. The Golden Gophers are a talented group and Fleck will work his magic. But it will take time. Northwestern can get the last laugh this time at Ryan Field.

Philip’s Take: The Wildcats have needed to win this game the last two years to reach bowl eligibility. The consequences may not be as dire this time. But certainly Justin Jackson will be motivated to close his career with a big game over the in-state rival. Plus: HAT.

SEASON RECORDS:

Andy: 9-3 (6-3 B1G)
Dave: 7-5 (4-5 B1G)
Phil: 7-5 (5-4 B1G)
Philip: 8-4 (5-4 B1G)
Rayan: 7-5 (5-4 B1G)
Zach: 8-4 (5-4 B1G)

OUR PREDICTED 2016 BIG TEN STANDINGS: 

West:
1.
2. Northwestern (Andy)
3. Minnesota (Andy)/ Northwestern (Phil, Philip, Rayan, Zach)
4. Minnesota (Dave/Philip/Rayan/Zach)
5. Minnesota (Phil)/ Northwestern (Dave)
6.
7.

East:
1.
2.
3.
4. Maryland (Dave)
5. Maryland (Phil/Rayan)
6. Maryland (Philip)
7. Maryland (Andy/Zach)

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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5 biggest Big Ten West division Spring Football storylines

What are the biggest storylines to follow as teams across the Big Ten West division begin spring football?

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Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?

With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the

Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.

Frost’s First Spring

As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the

Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.

Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.

Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.

Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.

O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.

Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson

Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.

Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.

So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.

Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin

Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.

Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.

However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.

Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.

Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul

There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.

It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?

Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.

I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.

Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.

Brohm’s Encore Performance

What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.

But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.

There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.

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5 reasons to watch Northwestern Wildcats vs. Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl

The Northwestern Wildcats look to keep their hot streak going as they go up against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl.

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The Northwestern Wildcats entered the season with big expectations. With senior running back Justin Jackson and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson, it felt like a perfect storm for the Wildcats. A chance to compete for a Big Ten title in a weakened West Division.

Things never turn out easy. A slow start and losses to Wisconsin and Penn State quickly ended those dreams.

Then the win streak started. Seven straight wins, including three straight overtime victories for the first time in NCAA history, later and Northwestern put together a pretty successful season. The Wildcats have one of the longest win streaks in the country and ended up with the nine-win season so many projected them to get.

Yet, the disappointment is real. The Wildcats thought they might be playing for a title this year . . . and probably playing a January bowl game at least. The Music City Bowl has a bit of a letdown feel to it.

It should not. Despite increased expectations from Pat Fitzgerald’s superb coaching, Northwestern still values every bowl experience. And this will be their first Music City Bowl.

The chance to beat a SEC team, even one that has struggled as much as Kentucky, will still be a treat. Northwestern knows not to take these appearances for granted.

The same as their Wildcat counterparts for this game. Kentucky is not exactly a football power either. They are a team with just eight bowl wins in 16 appearances. Kentucky is excited for the opportunity to score an upset.

Running back Benny Snell is already guaranteeing victory:

Kentucky started the year 5-2 and 6-3 before finishing the year with three losses in the last four games. That included crushing losses to rival Louisville and Georgia.

Kentucky’s statistical profile is nothing impressive. But the team still has some strong, opportunistic players.

This game appears to have a little more juice than the team’s poor histories might suggest. And this is really a matchup of two programs looking for their place in the national landscape. It should make for an intriguing matchup. One that may not be as lopsided as the records might suggest.

Embed from Getty Images

Justin Jackson, ball carrier

The Music City Bowl will mark the last time Justin Jackson dons a Northwestern uniform. In four years, Jackson has set all kinds of records and is a standard of excellence for running backs in Northwestern history.

After a slow start to the season, Jackson rushed for 1,154 yards for his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing year. He 96.2 rushing yards per game and nine touchdowns. Some of those numbers are somewhat modest. But that is also who Jackson is.

Jackson is a workhorse. A humble guy who simply shows up and falls forward. He earned the nickname the “Ballcarrier” based on the Ryan Field public address call “Justin Jackson, the ball carrier.” That is the best description for him.

Jackson had a big game at last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and is looking for a repeat performance in his final game at Northwestern.

Embed from Getty Images

Running back battle

This game will be a more traditional Big Ten, ground and pound game. Both teams want to run the ball and have great running backs to do so.

Benny Snell Jr. is not merely offering a guarantee. That is motivation for himself. He has the power to change the game.

Snell rushed for 1,318 yards this year and 18 touchdowns. He averaged 109.8 yards per game. He is a tough player to contain as the sophomore rushed for more than 150 yards in three of his last five games. That included 200-plus yards against Louisville.

He faces a stout run defense. Northwestern’s run defense helped hold Saquon Barkley in check and is one of the best rushing defenses in the country, giving up 111.3 rushing yards per game.

Kentucky knows it must establish the run to win this game. The Wildcats will rely heavily on their sophomore back.

Embed from Getty Images

Clayton Thorson on display

Clayton Thorson made some minor (but expected) news this week when he announced he would return for his senior year. After an up-and-down season for the junior quarterback, the NFL was kind of an afterthought. There was some early draft buzz for him and he clearly has the talent. But the consistency was never there.

This game could be another chance to showcase himself and rebuild some NFL credibility heading into his senior year. And his last chance to play with Justin Jackson will serve as an unofficial passing of the torch. Next year, Northwestern will rely heavily on Thorson.

Kentucky’s pass defense has had its struggles. The Wildcats gave up 263.5 passing yards per game. And they recorded only five interceptions. This was not an opportunistic defense. And everyone should remember Kentucky giving up two touchdowns in the team’s attempt to end a 30-year losing streak to Florida when cornerbacks failed to get in position to cover wide receivers.

Yes, it actually happened twice.

Turnovers have been Thorson’s weakness this year. He threw 12 interceptions against 15 touchdowns this year. But Thorson is capable of having big throwing games still. When he limits his mistakes — as he has done during the win streak, averaging 215.1 passing yards per game and just five interceptions — he is a dangerous quarterback.

Embed from Getty Images

Under Pressure

It goes without saying that the team that protects the quarterback will have the best chance to win the game. Both Kentucky and Northwestern have had their struggles along the offensive line. And that will be a point to watch throughout this game.

Kentucky and Northwestern each gave up 29 sacks. That is quite a lot and suggests some holes in the defense. With the Northwestern’s strong run defense and Kentucky’s poor passing offense, it could be a field day in the backfield if Kentucky is forced to pass. Kentucky does not ask quarterback Stephen Johnson to do a whole lot.

Northwestern and Kentucky can both get after the quarterback. Kentucky posted 28 sacks this year and Northwestern had 30.

Josh Allen and Denzil Ware were great getting into the backfield. Allen recorded seven sacks and Ware had 6.5. They could be terrors in the backfield when Northwestern passes. And that has always been something that slows the Wildcats’ offense down.

For Northwestern, Joe Gaziano has eight sacks and has been a great rusher off the edge. Freshman Samdup Miller came on strong to end the year, creating a strong pair of edge rushers.

Northwestern’s defense is really disciplined and playing extraordinarily well to end the season.

Travel Distance

What is interesting about the Music City Bowl is its location in Nashville.

Kentucky fans will surely make the relatively short drive from Lexington to Nashville — as they do for the SEC basketball tournament. But for Northwestern fans in Chicago, this is probably the ideal bowl location.

Sure, everyone would have enjoyed a vacation to Florida. And California Wildcats would have loved to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl or to stay at home in Northern California for the Foster Farms Bowl. But Nashville is a unique trip for Chicagoland Wildcats near the home base.

Nashville is a roughly seven-hour drive straight down I-65. That is relatively close for a bowl game. It seems like several Northwestern fans will take Pat Fitzgerald up on that offer and make the short trip.

Game Info

American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Who:
 Northwestern (9-3) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
When: Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. CT (ESPN)
Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

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talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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