2015 season preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Coming off a 1,187-yard season, Justin Jackson will once again anchor Northwestern's rushing attack. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Previewing the 2015 season for the Northwestern Wildcats.

2014 record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Trevor Siemian, DB Ibraheim Campbell, LB Jimmy Hall, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, C Brandon Vitabile, WR Kyle Prater.

Key returners: RB Justin Jackson, WR Christian Jones, TE/FB Dan Vitale, DB Nick VanHoose, LB Anthony Walker, DB Godwin Igwebuike.

Instant-impact freshman: Wide receiver Flynn Nagel should fit right in at Northwestern both on the field and academically. Northwestern was able to flip Nagel from Duke after losing receiver commit Grant Perry to Michigan, and he could end up being one of the stars of this class. His work ethic, hard-nosed mentality and talent level are exactly what coach Pat Fitzgerald looks for in prospects. Northwestern could use a sure-handed, reliable receiver in the offense, and Nagel could be that guy. -- Tom Van Haaren

Class of ’16 update: Northwestern has had an eventful summer, landing 14 of its 19 commitments between June and July. The class is balanced from top to bottom with four offensive linemen and three defensive linemen committed in the class as well as two quarterbacks, led by Aidan Smith out of Indiana. The coaching staff doesn’t like surprises or too much drama with their recruiting classes, and it looks as though they are on the right track with this class heading into the season. There doesn’t appear to be much drama with decommitments or waiting on many recruits to make a decision, so Northwestern should be in a good position on signing day. -- Tom Van Haaren

Biggest question mark: The Wildcats have a reliable tailback to anchor the rushing attack, and the receiving corps should get a boost from the return of a healthy veteran who missed all of last season. But they will still need to sort out exactly who will be handing off the football to Justin Jackson and throwing strikes to Christian Jones, and settling on the right candidate in a three-man race at quarterback will be crucial for Fitzgerald if he’s going to lead the program back to a bowl game after missing the postseason the past two years. There is a veteran option in Zack Oliver, a versatile threat in Matt Alviti and a touted youngster in Clayton Thorson, and one of those guys will need to make a strong impression during training camp to give the Wildcats a chance to hit the ground running with a strong test looming in the opener against Stanford.

Most important game: The schedule outside of the league is no cakewalk, and there’s a decent chance the Wildcats could be sitting at .500 by the time Big Ten action rolls around if they don’t pull out a minor surprise at home against Stanford or on the road against Duke. Either way, the conference debut against Minnesota could be the test that reveals which direction Northwestern is truly heading, and Fitzgerald could use an inspired effort on Oct. 3 or there could be trouble brewing.

Upset special: The Wildcats have been known to spring a few surprises, and Penn State is already well aware of that after losing at home to them a year ago. This year Northwestern gets to host the Nittany Lions, and it could once again open some eyes if the passing attack starts clicking and Jackson is able to keep the chains moving on the ground against a stout defense.

Key stat: No pass rush was more toothless than the one Northwestern threw at teams a year ago, and it will have to do much better than the 17 total sacks it managed last season if the defense is going to lead a push for the postseason. That deficiency didn’t totally sink a unit that still finished in the middle of the pack at No. 7 in total defense, but it certainly didn’t do much to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.

Prediction: 5-7. The Wildcats were on the verge of hitting it big midway through the 2013 season, but they didn’t get over the hump after a strong start that year and still haven't truly recovered. They could now be facing a third consecutive campaign that ends one victory short of the postseason, which might make the situation for Fitzgerald a bit more interesting.