Commentary: Preseason Prediction for 2011
by Jonathan Hodges

As a background, here are the series of previews leading up to the 2011 season of Northwestern Football here at HailToPurple:

NU Offseason Roundup
Five Questions for Camp Kenosha
2011 Regular Season Schedule Breakdown
The Defense
The Offense
Special Teams

Now, time for that special moment, my sixth annual Northwestern preseason prediction!

To provide some justification as to why you should pay attention to my predictions: on an individual game basis, my picks are 71.7% accurate (43-17). My pick of NU's regular season record over those five years: 37-23. Actual record: 34-26.

Note that I only pick wins and losses in the preseason (score predictions, taking into account the spread and over/under, are done during the week preceding each game). I do provide my likelihood of a Northwestern win, ranging from 0 (sure loss), to 5 (toss-up), to 10 (sure win) to allow some reading into my thoughts.

@ Boston College: 5, W
vs. Eastern Illinois (FCS): 9, W
@ Army: 7, W
@ Illinois: 5, L
vs. Michigan: 5, W
@ Iowa: 5, L
vs. Penn State: 4, W
@ Indiana: 8, W
@ Nebraska: 2, L
vs. Rice: 8, W
vs. Minnesota: 8, W
vs. Michigan State: 4, L

Predicted Record: 8-4 (4-4)

Not a very out-of-the box prediction, I know, but I'm all about realistic predictions. Adding up the winning probabilities yields a predicted 7 win season, which is a bit lower than my predicted total of 8 wins (which seems to match expectations of most 'Cats fans). I rationalized my win total using the logic that Northwestern almost always seems to win a game that it shouldn't. On the other hand, NU seems to always lose a game that it shouldn't as well. But, this season I see Coach Fitz's experience plus this experience and senior laden team being able to end that streak (NU has lost 6 games in which it was favored under Fitz, one each season dating back to 2007; this does not count the loss to FCS New Hampshire in 2006, as there was no line for that game).

NU should be in a good position to win some of the challenging earlier games due to that aforementioned returning experience (BC), and the 'Cats will also have a chance to game-plan for Army (preceded by a mediocre FCS team) and Illinois (preceded by a bye week), who both feature unique offensive attacks. Also, they get Michigan at a potentially vulnerable time (still adjusting to new schemes and their first trip outside of the Big House this season), and PSU must come to Evanston and will hopefully face a healthy Persa who is ready to get a piece of his home state's big team. NU's easiest FBS competition comes late in the year: Indiana, Rice, and Minnesota; the two Big Ten teams in that bunch are rebuilding and are certainly beatable, even if they've given the 'Cats plenty of trouble recently (hopefully that is more motivation for NU).

Finally, note that many of the games have a win probability around 50% (6 games are 5±1): the fact is that there are a lot of closely bunched teams in the Big Ten this year and many games could go either way. I have NU splitting those games, but the fact is that basically every game on NU's slate is realistically win-able (Nebraska being the only exception), and if they can gain some momentum, a great season is within the realm of possibility. If nothing else, this will certainly be an interesting season for Northwestern and the Big Ten in general.

Predicted Trip to Big Ten Championship? No

While I don't see a trip to the inaugural Big Ten title game in the cards for the 'Cats, they are certainly capable of such a run, particularly if Nebraska slips up at all. Beyond the Cornhuskers, there is a group of four teams that are rather closely matched in the Legends Division (everyone except Minnesota), and if a team can rise out of this group, they can certainly challenge Nebraska (it helps that the Huskers have to face the three teams from the opposite division expected to vie for that title game spot). For NU, it virtually all comes down to the early/mid October stretch of games including Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa: if the 'Cats can sweep those games, they'll be in the hunt down the stretch. A 2-1 record, especially with wins over division mates Michigan and Iowa would keep them in the running. Anything lower than that would require a miracle run down the stretch to be in contention for a division title.

Predicted Bowl: Texas Bowl

I don't have a whole lot of reasoning for this except that I believe NU will be within a cluster of Big Ten teams with 8±1 wins, leaving the bowls to sort things out by team desirability. Texas is close to the bottom of the bowl ladder, but Illinois will likely be in the pack and they went there last year, and an eighth win would certainly help keep the 'Cats above any 6 or 7 win teams. But, as with any season, the bowl dynamics are in a constant state of flux, and we won't really have an idea where things stand until mid November (maybe even later given the newly extended Big Ten season). But, there is a very good chance that NU will go bowling, so leave the end of December and January 2 open!

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.