I hope you all had a great weekend, and we welcome you back to our preseason opponent Q&A series in which we talk to writers covering all of the Michigan Wolverines’ opponents in this year.
In this edition, I interviewed Caleb Friedman of InsideNU.com, the Northwestern Wildcat affiliate of SB Nation.
Josh LaFond: This may be the most talented Northwestern team in recent memory... what are Wildcat fans expecting out of this season?
Caleb Friedman: I think there’s a general consensus that Northwestern’s schedule this season — with Duke and Notre Dame in non-conference play — is more difficult than last season’s. So, even with a lot of talent coming back, I’d say most people would be surprised if Northwestern won 10 games again, though it certainly isn’t out of the question. At this point, NU fans are waiting for a Big Ten West title, which has been the omnipresent-but-elusive goal head coach Pat Fitzgerald often talks about. Going to a bowl game is an expectation these days at Northwestern, which is a relatively new development. But winning the West is the new standard for success, and anything short of that is somewhat of a disappointment.
Josh: Being that both Jim Harbaugh and Pat Fitzgerald are former players and current head coaches at their current universities, the love from the fans is obviously there. That being said, though, on a scale of 1-10 where would you rank the job that Coach Fitzgerald has done, and is currently doing?
Caleb: I’ll go with an 8. The build has been slow (but steady), but Fitz has truly transformed football culture at Northwestern. The new lakeside facilities are now finished, and should bolster the program’s recruiting.
Northwestern has five 10-win seasons in its history, and three have come under Fitz. Three of NU’s four bowl victories have come under Fitz. He’s elevated Northwestern into one of the nation’s more consistent programs, and the facilities have completely transformed under his watch. That being said, he hasn’t been able to break through for a division title, and NU has had some let-down seasons.
Given where the program was, and where it is now, Pat Fitzgerald has done a remarkable job, but there’s still a level he’s yet to reach.
Josh: Where do you rank Clayton Thorson among Big Ten quarterbacks?
Caleb: Thorson is definitely in the top half of the conference, but he probably isn’t quite in the top-tier with Trace McSorley, Shea Patterson and (probably) Dwayne Haskins. Thorson has had to deal with terrible offensive lines, mediocre receiver play (at times) and very questionable play-calling. He has a strong arm and good mobility, but he has a tendency to take sacks and throw interceptions. He has a three year body of work, and he’s led Northwestern to two 10-win seasons as a starter. I’d say he’s probably in the same tier with Brian Lewerke and Alex Hornibrook — so in the four, five or six range in the conference.
Josh: Does Northwestern have a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten West and reach the conference title game in Indianapolis for the first time?
Caleb: Northwestern certainly has a legitimate shot to win the West. Behind Wisconsin, the prohibitive favorites, Iowa and Northwestern probably have the best chances to win the division.
The Wildcats won 10 games last season with inconsistent play on the offensive line and a secondary depleted by injuries. The front-seven has a chance to be dominant in 2018, and any improvement from Thorson will give NU a chance to finally give the Badgers a run at a division. I think NU winning the West is still unlikely, but definitely possible.
Josh: The last time Michigan and Northwestern played, a close game was expected, but Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s first year, shut out the Wildcats in a decisive win. Does that blowout still sting, or is it far removed for Wildcat players, and staffers minds?
Caleb: I think most fans remember it, but it’s not like it was some watershed moment that stuck with the program for a while. I think the blowout loss to Iowa in 2015 stung for longer, mostly because Northwestern plays Iowa annually. I’m sure the players and coaches, who unsurprisingly try to use anything they can for motivation, will use that game in some way, but many of the players on the current roster weren’t on the team the last time NU and Michigan played.
Josh: As of today, who do you think wins between Michigan and Northwestern?
Caleb: I think Michigan wins by 7.
I want to give my thanks to Caleb, as well as the great folks over at Inside NU. Go check out their great work at InsideNU.com and be sure to check back throughout the week as we wrap up our preseason, 2018 opponent Q&A series!