Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats bench react during the fourth quarter after a touchdown against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium on Nov 10, 2018. (Jeffrey Becker/USA Today)

Football

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: Big Ten title game run has No. 22 Northwestern wanting more

Not a single quarterback on the roster has thrown a college pass yet, but Clemson transplant Hunter Johnson will soon change that.

Posted July 6th, 2019

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We’re 54 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We kick off our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked 1st, 2nd, 8th and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 22 team: Northwestern

The Wildcats’ best-case scenario: Coming off an appearance in the Big Ten championship game, there is reason for optimism. The key is finding a replacement for former QB Clayton Thorson, now in the NFL. The most likely successor is Hunter Johnson, a former five-star recruit (2016) who transferred to Northwestern from Clemson last year. If the Wildcats can survive the first half of their schedule — against teams such as Stanford, Wisconsin and Ohio State — a 9-3 record and a mid-level bowl could be in the cards.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? Beginning the season on the road against Stanford highlights a brutal stretch of September and early-October games. It will be difficult to replace all the skill position players who have left. If they don’t get suitable replacements, the Wildcats will struggle to get a bowl bid with a 6-6 record.

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Northwestern didn’t crack our preseason top 25 poll last year.

Inside the Wildcats

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (13th year, 96-70 — all at Northwestern)

2018: 9-5, 8-1 in the Big Ten (beat Utah in the Holiday Bowl). Fitzgerald was the Big Ten’s coach of the year.

Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense

Shoes to fill: QB Clayton Thorson; WR Flynn Nagel (led team in receiving); S Kyle Queiro (5 INTs); LB Nate Hall

Spring cleaning: Multi-purpose back Cameron Green retired from football in February, citing head injuries sustained during his career. He had four touchdown catches last year. … Fitzgerald hired Kurt Anderson as the new offensive line coach. The Chicago native spent last season as a quality control analyst for the Wildcats, helping the ‘Cats earn their first-ever Big Ten West title. … One of the most impressive players during spring camp was CB Greg Newsome II, who saw ample playing time as a freshman last year. Coaches are also high on DE Joe Gaziano, who has 16.5 sacks the past two seasonw to go along with seven forced fumbles.

Former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson passes the ball during the second half of the Tigers’ spring game at Memorial Stadium on Apr 8, 2017. Johnson has transferred to Northwestern and can play this season. (Joshua S. Kelly/USA Today)

Returning leaders

PASSING: None

RUSHING: Isaiah Bowser (led team), 197-866-6

RECEIVING: Bennett Skowronek (1st), 45-644-5

TACKLES: LB Paddy Fisher (1st), 113

SACKS: DL Joe Gaziano (1st), 9.0; DL Samdup Miller (2nd), 5.5

INTERCEPTIONS: DB JR Pace (T-3rd), 2

Returning All-Big Ten players (5)

Offense: OT Rashawn Slater (3rd team)

Defense: LB Paddy Fisher (1st), DL Joe Gaziano (2nd), LB Blake Gallagher (hon. mention), DB JR Pace (hon. mention)

FYI

Bullish on Bowser: Bowser was a pleasant surprise last year after taking over running back duties for Jeremy Larkin, who was forced to retire due to cervical stenosis last September. If Bowser gets the bulk of the carries, he should challenge for 1,000 yards and all-conference honors. He averaged 108 yards in his final eight games.

Fitz is on a roll: Fitzgerald is the first Northwestern coach since Ara Parseghian (1956-63) to post an overall winning record, going 96-70. He’s also only the fourth to take the Wildcats to a bowl game and the only one to win four postseason games.

This and that: Fisher is one of the best LBs in the Big Ten. Northwestern was the least penalized team in the nation in 2018. The Wildcats were 5-1 in Big Ten games decided by seven points or fewer. … On offense, only two starting linemen return from last season — center Jared Thomas and tackle Rashawn Slater.

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 99th (24.2 ppg)

Total offense: 107th (354.4 ypg)

Passing: 58th (239.4 ypg)

Rushing: 119th (114.9 ypg)

Red zone offense: T-56th

Time of possession: 63rd (29:59)

Scoring defense: 41st (23.2 ppg)

Total defense: 64th (390.9 ypg)

Pass defense: 109th (261.2 ypg)

Rush defense: 26th (129.6 ypg)

Red zone defense: T-36th

Turnover margin: T-27th

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 31at Stanford
Sept. 14UNLV
Sept. 21Michigan State*W, 29-19
Sept. 28at Wisconsini*W, 31-17
Oct. 5at Nebraska*W, 34-31 (OT)
Oct. 18Ohio State*L, 45-24
Oct. 26Iowa*W, 14-10
Nov. 2at Indiana*
Nov. 9Purdue*W, 31-27
Nov. 16Massachussetts
Nov. 23Minnesota*W, 24-14
Nov. 30at Illinois*W, 24-16
* Big Ten game

The key game? Oct. 26, vs. Iowa. The winner of the ninth game of the season will have the inside track for conference honors.

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
20145-7 / 3-5— / —No bowl
201510-3 / 6-2— / 23rdOutback Bowl, L
20167-6 / 5-4— / —Pinstripe Bowl, W
201710-3 / 7-2— / 17thMusic City Bowl, W
20189-5 / 8-1— / 21stHoliday Bowl, W
Total41-23 / 29-144 bowl games (3-1)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: Northwestern

Our Top 25, by conferences

2 schools:

Big Ten — No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

1 school:

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Pac-12 — No. 25 Stanford

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 21 team

Want a hint?

This school led the country in passing last year, averaging nearly 375 yards per game.

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