Last year, the weirdest college football season any of us can remember had its clown prince in the apotheosis of Weird Northwestern Football.
A season beset by plague welcomed with open arms a Northwestern team built around strangling the hell out of football games and Not Committing Penalties. At some point, it becomes trite to relitigate the quality of football Northwestern attempted to play last year, but they were certainly successful at whatever it is they did. Was Peyton Ramsey good? Who cares? The offense kinda worked often enough. The defense was undeniably good. Did that make the team good? Well, it certainly got them within a quarter of having a play-in game to the College Football Playoff. Whether or not you think that’s a good football team is between you and your god.
It was above all else from my vantage point an extremely easy year to write about. We got Swaggering Fitz, complete with anecdotes about how in ashrams, if your phone goes off you get a toe removed, and wouldn’t that be great if we could do that here. We laughed at Nebraska. We got a suitable bushwhacking of Illinois that may have been a mistake after the Illini brought in Actually Good Coach and part-time meme, Bret Bielema.
And leading the way was the very weird, uncomfortable Covid season played by a weird and uncomfortable team.
Things fit together in a very neat narrative package.
Northwestern in 2021 is a different animal.
There is no easy narrative thread to write about this season. The pandemic is over, even if bodies continue to stack in hospital beds. Ryan Field will be full, I am vaccinated, I will be in the crowd yukking it up with friends, and I’ve reached a point of fatigue with All This.
Fitzgerald isn’t yet rounding into his full Luddite form, perhaps aware of the limitations his team has. Returning stars on the roster are few and far between, and despite some of the true sickos best efforts, no one is jacked up to watch a left tackle or run-stopping defensive end go to work. There is a new coordinator who no one knows anything about, other than that he is assuredly worse than Mike Hankwitz and that he is boring. Even the return of normalcy and a full Ryan Field doesn’t do much for me as a writer other than providing an opportunity for an easy riff when the crowd is 40% green in week one.
2021, in the prequels at least, scoffs at any writing man’s attempt to do much interesting.
It is, for mostly better and less for worse, the Year Of The Dumb Guy.
Once upon a time, a Ben Goren preview would spend a serious amount of time breaking down the team.
This section would likely be devoted to talking about Hunter Johnson. It would spend time breaking down some tape from 2019 and a discussion of his strengths and weaknesses as relayed by Those In The Know. It would involve math.
This year’s section is a pretty simple analysis: Hunter Johnson is probably broken for good. He threw more incompletions than completions before he was benched for Literally Aidan Smith, one of the least-competent Northwestern quarterbacks I’ve seen in-person. Northwestern went out to get a transfer to take the job from Johnson in back-to-back years. Johnson likely won the job by accident. I hope he rules. He throws the ball hard and that makes me smile. He activates the baby part of my brain. Big man throw ball far. I love him. I think he is probably bad.
Maybe I would spend some time walking about why the beleaguered skill positions could be better than you think. Maybe there’s a redshirt freshman with some skill. Maybe the running back room is hiding some stud. Remember when Justin Jackson was benched for someone with the last name Green? I do. It was weird.
Instead, let me offer that Genson Hooper Price and Ray Niro III are both on the two-deep at wide receiver. Their names are very funny.
All of this back-handed analysis is a very boring literary technique, but the short version is that while I don’t really know all that much about this team, the offense appears to be Very Smelly.
The defense, though, mega rules. They will be as good as a Northwestern defense can be. The secondary is scary. My concerns about the defensive tackles were misplaced. Linebackers will be fine. They kick ass on that side of the ball.
The great thing about 2021 is that no one knows anything.
Northwestern is replacing more production than any team in the country. Its fate lies in the hands of a quarterback who only played in a few games two years ago, experienced and angry offensive and defensive lines, aces and spaces in the secondary, and you, reader, starting at wide receiver. Make sure to tie your shoes.
No level of insider-dom allows for any expert analysis on what’s going to happen on a team like that. No level of recruit message board crystal balling or tape eating or soothsaying should give anyone any confidence in predicting an outcome. Things could go extremely well. Things could go completely belly up. You think the team is going to win 10 games? That defense looks mighty feisty, you may be onto something. You think the team is going to lose 9 games? There may be less talent on offense than there was in 2019, I feel you.
There is a great joy to be found in stopping trying to understand the intricacies of a team you root for. I remember the exact moment I last cared about recruiting. I had to write a player capsule for Joe Gaziano towards the end of my time at Inside NU. From that point on, freshmen and former backups who pop on the roster have been fun presents to unwrap. Some of them have been delightful (Brandon Joseph, please dunk on my brain). Some of them less so (I remember being told to be excited about Malik Washington, oops).
I still trust my eyes to tell me what’s going well or badly during a game. But the more I watch and the less I obsess over the off-the-field minutiae that define college football, the more I realize understanding a game is a quixotic endeavor.
Football is maybe the only sport I can think of where there is truly no such thing as a one-on-one situation. Every play is the result of a Rube Goldberg machine, beginning with coaches in practice spitting in linebackers ears about keeping your eyes in the backfield goddammit and ending with whether or not a left tackle cheated just craftily enough that the field judge didn’t notice and the quarterback could heave a ball 27 yards downfield without getting plastered into the turf.
Analysis at the best of time is nearly impossible. Analysis on this Northwestern team, with its motley crew of Could Be Law Firm Guys on offense, its Could Be Terrible defensive coordinator, and its Extremely Large, Strong and Scary lines on both sides of the ball seems to be especially foolhardy.
Instead, the only way to enjoy Northwestern, at least until we have any idea about what this team actually is, is to power down your brain.
I’ll be slack-jawed, ooh-ing and aah-ing at how fast the ball comes out of Hunter Johnson’s hands on a bubble screen on 2nd and 12. I’ll be hooting and hollering when Brandon Joseph does some superhero stuff in his own end zone. I’ll be furiously pulling up a roster link to figure out who that big guy is who just swallowed a running back whole 6 yards deep in the backfield. I’ll be following The Word Of Fitz and putting my phone in a plastic bag, filling the bag with cement, and throwing the bag to the bottom of a suburban above ground pool.
Football is back, baby. It doesn’t get any better than this.