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2021 Northwestern college football preview: Wildcats undergo massive roster overhaul

Northwestern is coming off their second Big Ten West division title in three seasons, but they will replace a ton of talent from last year’s roster.

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

The Northwestern Wildcats have been a fascinating case the past three seasons. The program won the Big Ten West in 2018, finished last in 2019 and went right back to the top in 2020. Northwestern finished 7-2 last season and lost to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game, then capped off the year with a loss to the Auburn Tigers.

This roster will look incredibly different heading into the 2021 season. In a year in which it seems like every program has a ton of returning starters, the Wildcats will need to replace as much as just about any team in college football. Pat Fitzgerald has Northwestern at a place where a bad season could still involve a bowl game, and a record around .500 is the expectation for this program.

2020 Season Review

  • 7-2, 6-1 Big Ten, Lost Big Ten Championship (22-10 vs. Ohio State), Citrus Bowl Win (35-19 vs. Auburn)
  • Won first five games of the season, clinched Big Ten West title, lost second half lead vs. Ohio State

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 50
ESPN Returning Production: 34% overall (126th): 29% offense (127th), 39% defense (125th)
Returning Talent Index: Negative, 14th in Big Ten
Returning starters: 4/11 offense, 4/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Ryan Hilinski (Sophomore)

Peyton Ramsey saved the Northwestern quarterback room as a transfer last season, and he did all that was asked of him in 2020 to guide the offense. He is no longer on the roster, and the Wildcats brought in a new transfer QB this offseason with Ryan Hilinski, a former starter for the South Carolina Gamecocks. He started as a true freshman in 2019 and completed 58.1% of his passes for 2,357 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. The Wildcats’ offense wasn’t all that explosive last season, but Hilinski has a big arm and can create the occasional big play.

Offense (non-QB): RB Cam Porter (Sophomore)

Cam Porter came on extremely strong late last season, and this offense rode him the final three games of the season. He carried the ball eight times in the first six games and averaged 24.3 carries per game in the final three as he took over the position. Porter proved he could be a workhorse back in this offense, but we’ll see how well he can handle a full season with that type of workload. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry with five touchdowns in 2020.

Defense: S Brandon Joseph (Sophomore)

Northwestern will need to replace Greg Newsome II in the secondary, as he was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Brandon Joseph is among the country’s top safeties, and he picked off six passes last season in nine games. The Wildcats have a lot to replace, but the secondary appears to be in good shape starting with Joseph at the back end.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 30th overall: 93rd offense, 3rd defense, 39th special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 75th overall: 124th offense, 14th defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +50000
To win Big Ten: +3300
Win total: 6 (Over -134, Under +105)

2020 Against The Spread: 7-1-1
2020 Point Total: Over 2-7-0

2021 Northwestern Schedule

2021 Northwestern Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Friday, Sep. 3 Michigan State 9:00 pm/ESPN NW -4.5
Saturday, Sep. 11 Indiana State 12:00 pm/BTN N/A
Saturday, Sep. 18 at Duke 4:00 pm/ACCN NW -9
Saturday, Sep. 25 Ohio TBA NW -14
Saturday, Oct. 2 at Nebraska 7:30pm/TBA NW +6.5
Saturday, Oct. 9 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 16 Rutgers 12:00pm/TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 23 at Michigan TBA NW +9.5
Saturday, Oct. 30 Minnesota TBA NW +2.5
Saturday, Nov. 6 Iowa TBA NW +8.5
Saturday, Nov. 13 at Wisconsin TBA NW +15.5
Saturday, Nov. 20 Purdue (at Wrigley Field) TBA NW -1.5
Saturday, Nov. 27 Illinois TBA NW -6.5

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