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Behind Enemy Lines Preview: The Northwestern Wildcats

Lauren Withrow of SI weighs in on Northwestern heading into the season.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

As we get closer to the 2021 football season, we decided to poll other sites in the college football internet to get a sense of where their programs are at. Today’s edition welcomes Lauren Withrow of Wildcats Daily on Sports Illustrated to preview Northwestern. They come to Ann Arbor on Oct. 23.

Here is the full rundown from Withrow on what the Wildcats bring back and how the fanbase feels about their outlook moving forward.

Key departures

  • QB Peyton Ramsey
  • TE John Raine
  • RB Isaiah Bowser
  • WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman
  • WR Kyric McGowan
  • WR Riley Lees
  • DL Earnest Brown
  • LB Paddy Fisher
  • LB Blake Gallagher
  • CB Greg Newsome

Key returnees

  • LT Peter Skoronski
  • RB Cam Porter
  • S Brandon Joseph
  • DL Samdup Miller
  • C Sam Gerak
  • LB Chris Bergin

True freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact

  • QB Ryan Hilinski
  • WR Stephon Robinson Jr.
  • S Trent Carrington
  • WR Jordan Mosley
  • LB Mac Uihlein

A brief overview of 2021 team

Northwestern’s schedule is relatively favorable, as the non-conference slate is not daunting and the ‘Cats avoid the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions in their crossover games. After a record-breaking NFL Draft, which saw two Northwestern players chosen in the first round, the Wildcats return just 34% of their total production from last season—which is 126th in the FBS, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly.

To say there is a lot of turnover going into the 2021 season would be an understatement, as both sides of the ball return less than half of their starters from 2020. Despite the team’s youth, the Wildcats will be a contender in the Big Ten title race.

The offense will be led by the sophomore running back, Cam Porter, who put up 333 yards on 81 attempts in a shortened 2020 season. The Wildcats will lean heavily on Porter to shoulder the load on offense as they lost their top four pass-catchers as well as their starting quarterback.

At the quarterback position, there will be a battle to see who starts between two transfers, South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinksi and the former Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. However, it is most likely that Hilinski will come in and win the starting job over Johnson.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats will look to maintain the same effort from 2020 that led the nation in passing efficiency.

This could prove to be difficult for the Wildcats defense, which is being led by a new defensive coordinator in Jim O’Neil. Despite the loss of five starting players, the defense does return some serious talent that should help fill the gap.

The Wildcats defense, which is known for hard-hitting linebackers, will not be any different in 2021 as Chris Bergin will lead a solid linebacker core. Elsewhere on the defense, look for Joe Spivak to anchor the defensive line and wreak havoc on opposing offenses allowing for the secondary to shut down offenses through the air as well.NU has yet to figure out its QB1 situation, with South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski and seniors Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty all in the running for the spot. If Hilinski wins the race as predicted, the Wildcats should be in good hands. Hilinski has the most experience (especially coming from the SEC) and is a very patient player with a precise arm. If he can gain the confidence of the offense, the ‘Cats should be fairly stable.

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

Offensive line coach Kurt Anderson has worked wonders with this unit over the course of the last couple of seasons, and this year expects to be no different. The Wildcats return veteran center Sam Gerak, rising star Peter Skoronski at left tackle, and Ethan Wiederkehr moving from right guard to right tackle. While Coach Anderson will be looking for two new guards, it shouldn’t be much of a concern. Sophomore Josh Priebe and redshirt junior Charlie Schmidt will be looking to slide into both guard spots respectively. Leading the way for Cam Porter, who has all the makings of an All-Big Ten running back, the offensive line and rushing attack will help take a big load off of whoever wins the Wildcat’s quarterback competition.

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

The Wildcats will return just 34% of their total production from last season—which is 126th in the FBS, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. After a veteran-heavy squad helped lead the Wildcats to a Big Ten West Championship in 2020, this year’s Wildcats will need to find help in unexpected places as they look to fill several holes. New faces will have to step up for head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad this season, especially in key roles such as QB, WR, and LB, if they want to replicate the success they had in 2020 and end up back in Lucas Oil Stadium come December.

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

The Wildcats fan base is incredibly supportive of head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is working with offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who is joining NU after a coaching stint in the NFL. Some NU coaches are former NU athletes, and the staff is exceptionally loyal to the program.

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

All-American safety Brandon Joseph — Brandon Joseph will play a large role in the Wildcats secondary Though a sophomore, Joseph is the program's second defensive All-Ameican in program history (Fitzgerald was the first). His leadership and command of the Wildcats defense will be crucial in developing an extremely young team.

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

Prediction: 8-4

Surprise loss: Nebraska

Best win: Purdue