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Last season didn’t start great for Northwestern after back-to-back non-conference losses, but the Wildcats slowly figured things out, finishing 5-4 in Big Ten play and a a bowl win over Pittsburgh. With a lot of those pieces back, including quarterback Clayton Thorson, a couple more wins is expected for this group.

Thorson already has two years under his belt and showed vast improvement in 2016, posting 22 TDs, 9 INTs and a 58.6% completion rate. With more improvement, this offense could change what the conference title game looks like this year. Thorson is joined by stud running back Justin Jackson, who has rushed for more than 1,400 yards each of the last two years and if he matches last season’s 1,524-yard, 15-touchdown performance, this offense will be set. The question will be if Thorson can show progression without favorite receiver Austin Carr (90 receptions, 1,247 yards, 12 touchdowns). In Carr’s place, Flynn Nagel (447 yards) steps into the slot with Solomon Vault also expected to see a jump in playing time. To go with the talent, the offensive line is set to be better, as well, with only a couple new faces for an experienced group.

The defense lost some important parts, but return plenty from a group that allowed only 22.1 points per game. While they’re dealing with injuries as usual, the secondary gets back Keith Watkins II to go with an already stout secondary that includes Godwin Igwebuike and Montre Hartage. After dealing with injuries last season, the defense has plenty of experience and depth with Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson in the trenches. The biggest thing for Northwestern will be finding a new guy at middle linebacker, but Nate Hall has the experience to at least fill in there and not let the team fall apart.

Everything points to this being a better team and better season for the Wildcats, but they’ll have to start out much stronger. This year, they’ll travel to Duke and if they take care of that game, could be in line for an undefeated non-conference record, unless last season’s early struggles show up. Still, Big Ten play starts in Madison and then they host Penn State so early conference wins will be hard to come by. As a bonus, Northwestern avoids Ohio State and Michigan, while its only road test against the East division is at Maryland. With home games against Iowa and Minnesota, there’s no reason they can’t jump those two in the standings.

And that’s about where the spring odds are at for the Wildcats at +2300 odds (at 5Dimes Sportsbook) to win the Big Ten and place behind Wisconsin in the West, along with Nebraska. Winning at Wisconsin isn’t expected, but it wouldn't be a stretch given their experience, and nine wins could be in play for 2017 and that’s before reaching a bowl.


2017 Northwestern Wildcats Football Schedule

Sept. 2 vs. Nevada
Sept. 9 at Duke
Sept. 16 vs. Bowling Green
Sept. 30 at Wisconsin

Oct. 7 vs. Penn State
Oct. 14 at Maryland
Oct. 21 vs. Iowa

Oct. 28 vs. Michigan State
Nov. 4 at Nebraska
Nov. 11 vs. Purdue
Nov. 18 vs. Minnesota
Nov. 25 at Illinois

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