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2021 football opponent preview: Northwestern Wildcats

The Wildcats have won two of the last three B1G West titles. Will it happen again in 2021?

Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Auburn v Northwestern Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers opened up fall practice earlier this month and the rest of the country has joined them as well. For the rest of the month, we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts, and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Up next in our preview series we take a look at the Northwestern Wildcats.

Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Auburn v Northwestern Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Team name: Northwestern Wildcats
2020 record: 7-2, Big Ten West Champions
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, November 13, Camp Randall Stadium
Last time vs. Wisconsin: NU 17 - UW 7, the ugliest football game in quite a while

Returning leaders:

Passing: No returning production from last years team, South Carolina transfer Ryan Hillinski or Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson will compete for starting spot (Editor’s note: after Tyler submitted this, Pat Fitzgerald named Johnson the starter.)
Rushing: FR Cam Porter, 81 attempts for 353 yards (4.1 ypc), five touchdowns
Receiving: FR WR Bryce Kirtz, six catches for 67 yards (11.2 ypc), zero touchdowns, long of 20 yards
Tackles: SR LB Chris Bergin, 78 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss
Sacks: SO DE Adetomiwa Adebawore, two sacks
Interceptions: FR S Brandon Joseph, six interceptions

Minnesota v Northwestern
Johnson won the starting job, but he’ll have a lot of new faces around him.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Key offensive player:

Usually, it’s easy to pinpoint a key player, but in Northwestern’s case there are a variety of names you could choose from that will be replacing a ton of production from 2020. After a very strong year in 2020 Northwestern loses their leading passer, four of their five leading rushers, and their top four receivers from a year ago. That is a lot to replace.

Quarterback is where most eyes will look as, despite losing starter Peyton Ramsey, the Wildcats will at least fill the position with some experience as Ryan Hilinski transfers in from South Carolina where he started 11 games, throwing for 2,357 yards. He was the backup for the Gamecocks a season ago.

Competing for the job will be transfer Hunter Johnson who has been with Northwestern since 2019. Johnson transferred from Clemson but put together a very poor campaign in 2019 completing just 46% of his passes for the Wildcats. He did not play in 2020.

Both players come in with experience and will be hungry to prove themselves in 2021 after almost no action for either last season. Hilinski seems to be the likely candidate to win the job, but Johnson will certainly compete all fall. When you look at an offense that returns almost no production from last year I think you have to start here as a position that will be vital to their success.

(Editor’s note: again...Tyler submitted this before Johnson was named starter and we wanted to leave his thoughts as is since it’s likely that Hilinski sees some action this season.)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 UMass at Northwestern
Bergin (No. 28) is celebrating a play against UMass. Act like you’ve been there before, man.
Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Key defensive player:

Last year the “Irish Law Firm” of Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, and Chris Bergin we’re the focal point of one of the nation's best defenses. This year Gallagher and Fisher are gone, meaning Bergin will be the focal point for opposing offenses as he is the leading tackler returning. With his running mates gone Bergin will likely put together a very strong year and lead the team in tackles in 2021.

As he takes on a bigger role it will also be important to see who develops around him at the linebacker position. Peter McIntyre is a possible starter, coming in with just seven tackles a season ago but some playing time. Additionally, Khalid Jones has played in four games and could be a part of this unit.

One name to keep an eye on is Bryce Gallagher, the younger brother of Blake. If he’s anything like his brother I would imagine he’ll but just as much of a pest to Wisconsin’s offense.

2021 season preview:

Northwestern had a great season in 2020 going 7-2, winning the Big Ten West, and knocking off Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. This year's team however, will look much different as many key pieces are gone from that 2020 group.

On offense, Northwestern loses Peyton Ramsey at quarterback, four of their top five rushers, and their top four receivers. Three starters return on the line, including Peter Skoronski who looks like he could be the next great Wildcat lineman.

On defense, the Wildcats lose two of their big three at linebacker, their sack leader in Eku Leota, and three starters from their secondary headlined by Greg Newsome who was a first-round pick by the Cleveland Browns. All those loses are big, but the biggest may be at defensive coordinator as Mike Hanwitz who retired after an incredibly strong career.

Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Auburn v Northwestern Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Overall, the losses are monumental and Northwestern returns the least amount of experience in all of college football according to Phil Steele and ESPN. When you see that much missing you tend to turn to recruiting rankings. Northwestern, however, has never recruited at a high clip either finishing No. 14 in the Big Ten in 2018, No. 12 in 2019, and No. 11 in 2020.

Despite the low returning production and recruiting numbers, Northwestern does return head coach Pat Fitzgerald for year 16 and that seems to be the most important piece. On paper, this team looks like a group due for a down year, but it’s hard to bank on that with Fitzgerald at the helm. The win total sits at 6.5 and I have already hit the under as I think it is a lot to try and replace but there is no doubt Fitzgerald will look to spoil any low expectations once again.