EVANSTON – This is not an unusual situation for a Pat Fitzgerald-led team since he took over the program he played for back in 2006.
Since then, only one Northwestern football team has entered the preseason in ranked in the Top 25 in either the AP or coaches poll. Yet in four of the last six seasons, including two that featured Big Ten West division titles, the Wildcats ended up in the final rankings.
That includes the shortened 2020 Big Ten season in which Fitzgerald’s team went 7-2 with a Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn. Northwestern finished tenth in the final rankings, and if they hadn’t been upset by Michigan State in November, they may have played Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game with a shot at a College Football Playoff berth.
Yet despite that season, coupled with some key losses on both sides of the ball, the Wildcats enter the 2021 campaign unranked once again. They’re technically 33rd in the Associated Press poll and 27th in the coaches as they approach their season opener against Michigan State on Friday at Ryan Field.
Does that bother the group? Not really if you ask linebacker Chris Bergin.
“Respect is earned, and us having the least amount of returning production in college football, we haven’t earned respect, it’s as simple as that,” said the graduate senior when asked about being left out of preseason polls. “Last year’s team, we earned it. This year’s team, we are going to earn it.
“So am I surprised? No. Do I think we should have it? No. Do I think we’re going to earn it? Yes. We’re excited for the opportunity.”
They won’t have to wait long to start earning it in the Big Ten as they open with a conference opponent for the third time in four seasons. They did well the previous two times, defeating Purdue in 2018 then Maryland in 2020 en route to a pair of West Division championships.
There will be plenty of questions about this team that will start to be answered over the course of 60 minutes against the Spartans. On offense it begins with quarterback Hunter Johnson, who won the job for a second time in three seasons in training camp.
Injuries and inconsistent play limited him to just six games in 2019 in a 3-9 season for the Wildcats, then he sat behind graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey in 2020.
“I felt confident that eventually my number would get called again and then I would be able to go play with my guys again,” said Johnson of winning the job. “Just excited for the opportunity just because it’s not guaranteed and I’m just excited to go out and cut it loose and play ball again.”
Johnson will be without leading rusher Cam Porter, who is out for the season with an injury, while also replacing offensive tackle Rayshawn Slater along with the team’s four leading receivers from last season – Ramaud Chiaokhaio-Bowman, Kyric McGowan, John Raine, and Riley Lees.
Defensively the are losses as well, including All-Big Ten and All-Amerian cornerback Greg Newsome II, defensive end Ernest Brown IV, and Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Paddy Fisher. Consensus 2020 first team All-American safety Brandon Joseph is back to lead the unit that was fifth in Division I in scoring defense a year ago (15.9 points allowed per game).
There’s not better time for the defense to prove itself than Friday in conference play while facing the only team that knocked them off in regular season play a year ago.
“I think this being such a big game that we lost last year and being another Big Ten opponent, it’s just a huge game for us to really get the season started the way we want and get rolling into the season that we think we can have,” said Joseph.
As they do so, there’s plenty of respect to be earned from now till the end of 2021.