Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 countdown: No. 23 Northwestern

Dr. Saturday
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/272166/" data-ylk="slk:Justin Jackson">Justin Jackson</a> ran for over 1,500 yards in 2016. (Getty)
Justin Jackson ran for over 1,500 yards in 2016. (Getty)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 24 Washington State, No. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 7-6, (5-4 Big Ten)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sep. 9 at Duke
Biggest conference game: Sep. 30 at Wisconsin

Key returning player:
RB Justin Jackson
Key departed player: WR Austin Carr

Three things to know about Northwestern

• It may sound crazy, but Northwestern could have the best offense in the Big Ten West. Losing Carr, who had 90 catches for 1,247 and 12 touchdowns in 2016, hurts, but nearly every other key contributor is back on the offensive side of the ball.

Jackson had 1,524 yards and 15 scores and averaged over five yards a carry a year ago. QB Clayton Thorson, meanwhile, threw for over 3,000 yards and completed 59 percent of his passes. If WR Flynn Nagel, who had 40 catches for 447 yards in 2016, can step up and replace some of the production Carr had a year ago, the Wildcat offense isn’t going to miss a beat.

Jackson shouldn’t have to carry as large of an offensive load as he did in 2016 either. Sophomore RB John Moten was the team’s second-leading rusher with 340 yards but averaged six yards a carry. His continued production should mean Jackson doesn’t approach 300 carries again in 2017.

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Clayton Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016. (Getty)
Clayton Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016. (Getty)

• The Wildcats are well-positioned to take on Wisconsin in the Big Ten West thanks to a schedule that gets markedly easier after the first week of October.

If Northwestern can survive a trip to Duke unscathed, it’s reasonable to think the Wildcats will be 3-2 through the first five games of the season. The wins would be against Nevada, the Blue Devils and Bowling Green while the losses come against the Badgers and Penn State, who travels to Evanston on Oct. 7.

After that, the toughest game for the Wildcats may be a Nov. 4 trip to Nebraska. Northwestern gets Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota all at home while other road games are at Maryland and Illinois.

A second 10-2 regular season in three years is a distinct possibility and many of Northwestern’s starters were members of that team. All but one of the 22 offensive and defensive starters vs. Nevada in the season opener on Sep. 2 could be juniors and seniors.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Big Ten media days he’s also keen on not making the same mistakes he did at the beginning of the 2016 season when the Wildcats lost to Western Michigan and Illinois State on the way to a 1-3 start.

“I think the guys realized maybe through our experience early in the year we maybe came into the season not in the health we wanted to be and we had to tweak some,” Fitzgerald said. “I didn’t manage it very well. As we got our edge back midway through the season, we carried it through the bowl prep. And the guys saw the return on the investment, and that momentum carried over really through offseason workouts and then to spring ball.”

• The secondary should be much improved in 2017. All four starting defensive backs return from a pass defense that allowed opponents to throw for over 260 yards per game and opposing quarterbacks to complete over 60 percent of their passes.

While Northwestern’s rush defense held opponents to less than four yards a carry, the 5.4 yards allowed per play by the defense was the most the defense has allowed since 2013.

But as the secondary is largely unchanged from a year ago, Northwestern has to find two new starters at linebacker. That’s including a replacement for Anthony Walker, who had 105 tackles and eight tackles for loss a year ago.

“I like what I’ve seen from Nate Hall,” Fitzgerald said of his team’s third-leading tackler in 2016. “As I look at what Brett Walsh has done throughout his career, I think Brett right now is our leader in that room from the standpoint of what he’s not only overcome throughout his career from an injury standpoint but also the production he’s had. And the game that Nate Hall has, I think he’s really dynamic and special athlete.”

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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