2016 Football Preview: Our staff makes its season predictions


Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang

Justin Jackson waves as he jogs off the field. The junior running back is expected to be the main playmaker in Northwestern’s offense.

Daily Sports Staff

After a grueling offseason, football is finally back. Check out our staff’s predictions for Northwestern in 2016.


Much of this 2016 Wildcat team is already a well-known commodity. The rushing attack, led by Justin Jackson, will be punishing but not particularly explosive. The rush defense, led by Anthony Walker, will be able to chase runners to the corners and consistently make tackles. The secondary will miss Nick VanHoose, but has enough talent back to remain formidable.

But the one area that is a total wild card is the passing game, and how respectable the Cats can be in that regard will likely determine the fate of their season.

Clayton Thorson was limited, if not outright bad, in 2015, but he has had an entire offseason of reps as the starter and is bound to improve with more confidence and experience. The receiving corps is completely remade but can’t possibly be as slow and drop-prone as last year’s group. If Solomon Vault can translate his raw talent into being a legitimate No. 1 receiver and NU can get reliable production from not just fellow starters Austin Carr and Andrew Scanlan, but also Flynn Nagel and Charlie Fessler, defenses will be forced to spread out enough to give Thorson (and Jackson) space to operate.

How effective the Cats can be through the air will determine whether they can improve enough on the field to make up for the inevitable regression in their good luck and the challenges of a tough schedule. Ultimately, I foresee significant improvement in that regard, but not a drastic jump, costing the Cats a few winnable games.

Prediction: 7-5, Pinstripe Bowl


Last season, NU’s defense was one of the best in the country and figures to regress a touch with some key players lost to graduation. On the flip side, the Cats’ offense was one of the worst in the country and figures to bounce back at least a bit, if only because there’s not a lot of room to be worse than it was last season.

And so I see NU’s season unfolding in a more or less predictable manner — the offense plays somewhat better, the defense plays slightly worse and the team on the balance is improved over last season but loses more games. There are too many almost-guaranteed losses on the road — at Michigan State, Ohio State and an Iowa team that has had the Cats’ number the last few seasons — for NU to match last season’s lofty record, barring a major breakout by Clayton Thorson. The Cats will be better this season, but they’ll be worse this season, because life and football rarely make sense.

Prediction: 7-5, Pinstripe Bowl


On paper this NU team is better than the one that won 10 games last year. So it very well could be a special season in Evanston.

However, there is the issue of the schedule, which is less fluffy than it was in 2015. Key games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa land away from Ryan Field, so these Cats will need to be road warriors.

At the same time, the schedule seems to be an excuse for many to temper expectations around what looks like one of the best teams in program history. NU was a solid road team last fall, landing big wins at Duke, Nebraska and Wisconsin, and the Cats’ schedule features some favorable breaks. They miss Michigan, the Spartans come off a bye, and, let’s face it, NU would face long odds against Ohio State if the game was played in Anchorage. Playing that one in Columbus doesn’t change a whole lot.

The Cats’ schedule is not a fluff schedule, but it’s also not a disastrous one, and this squad is ready for it. Justin Jackson is dynamite. Anthony Walker might be the best linebacker in the nation. NU is a serious team. Time to drink the purple Kool-Aid.

Prediction: 9-3, Citrus Bowl


NU will be better on the field but worse in the win column in 2016.

There’s simply little chance the Cats can duplicate the luck in close games — NU went 5-0 in contests decided by 7 or fewer points — that propelled them to 10 victories a season ago. But with the core of last year’s team returning and plenty of key players with another offseason of experience under their belts, there are still plenty of reasons to have high expectations.

Juniors running back Justin Jackson and linebacker Anthony Walker will be their usual dominant selves, and Walker should earn first-team All-America honors by season’s end. Sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, meanwhile, can hardly be any worse than he was in 2015 – even middling play from him will be a huge upgrade.

Add in what should be an All-Big Ten season from top cornerback Matthew Harris and a healthier and more consistent offensive line, and the Cats have the makings of a Big Ten West dark horse contender. Ultimately I think they’ll fall just short, finishing with losses only to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Prediction: 9-3, Holiday Bowl


I really don’t know what to make of NU’s squad this season. Yes, the Cats won 10 games last season and are arguably going to be just as good, or maybe even better, in 2016. However, two of this year’s crossover games in Michigan State and Ohio State are absolutely brutal, and NU has historically struggled in the month of October, which is when both of these games take place.

The Cats’ improvement will depend on Clayton Thorson. If he can complete just 5 percent more of his passes — Thorson had a 50.8 percent completion rate in 2015 — NU’s offense will be fine, leaving the rest to the defense. I expect the defense to be elite again, though if another freak injury occurs like it did to Keith Watkins II then I may start to worry about depth.

The bottom line is that without an improvement from Thorson, NU will be stuck in the mud. Justin Jackson can only do so much, and if he ends up with over 300 carries again the offense will be one-dimensional and predictable. I don’t expect that to happen and can see NU winning a lot of close games again, but think it ends up slightly less lucky than in 2015.

Prediction: 8-4, TaxSlayer Bowl

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