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2021 Northwestern football season preview

2020 season: 7-2, 6-1 in the Big Ten (1st in the West Division)

Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald (16th season)

Northwestern continued its ascent toward the upper tier of the college football world last season, earning a second Big Ten Championship Game berth in three years and placing as high as No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings. However, now the Wildcats have to ensure they remain on that upward trajectory and avoid a similar setback to 2019, when they finished 3-9 overall and 1-8 in the conference. No. 1 on the agenda: consistent quarterback play.

The Wildcats struggled mightily to find stability at the quarterback spot in 2019, ranking 126th in the country with just 117 passing yards per game. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey stabilized Northwestern’s quarterback room last year, earning third-team All-Big Ten honors and winning MVP of the team’s Citrus Bowl win against Auburn. But Ramsey has now gone to the NFL, which sent Fitzgerald and company back to the drawing board. South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski was initially thought to be Ramsey’s successor, but Fitzgerald has since named senior Hunter Johnson the starter for Week 1. Johnson was one of the main culprits of the Wildcats’ disappointing 2019, completing just 50 of 108 passes for 432 yards, one score and four interceptions in six games before suffering a season-ending injury. However, the former Clemson commit and No. 1 quarterback recruit in the Class of 2017 has shown enough improvement and promise to regain the trust of the coaching staff. 

Johnson will have other obstacles to overcome outside of his own past struggles, though. Northwestern’s top three receivers from last year are all gone, and starting running back Cam Porter suffered a season-ending injury in preseason camp. While Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. and the return of 2020 opt-out JJ Jefferson will help alleviate the Wildcats’ losses at receiver, it’s safe to say second-year offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has his work cut out for him this season.

The shakeup isn’t limited to just Northwestern’s offense. On the defensive end, the Wildcats lost two NFL Draft picks—first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II and fifth-round defensive end Earnest Brown II—as well as longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to retirement. However, new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil still inherits consensus first-team All-America safety Brandon Joseph and a flurry of young talent that should continue Northwestern’s reputation as one of the strongest defenses in the country.

Overall, a return to the Big Ten title game might be tough to expect for a team that’s undergone such hectic turnover on the offensive end. But Northwestern has surprised the nation before, and at this point, it’d be a mistake to overlook Fitzgerald and his Wildcats.

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