Big things in store for David Braun's encore season with Northwestern football

Michael Reaves/GettyImages
Michael Reaves/GettyImages / Michael Reaves/GettyImages

Few thought that Northwestern football would be competitive in 2023. Even fewer people thought that the Wildcats would win eight games and capture their first bowl victory since 2020.

Two weeks from yesterday marks the one-year anniversary of one of the most infamous college football scandals in recent memory -- one that placed Northwestern football in utter disarray. July 10, 2023, was the day that long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired amid the groundbreaking hazing scandal, causing dozens of players to flee or decommit from the program and staining the university’s reputation.

Then stepped in newly hired defensive coordinator David Braun, who was handed the keys and appointed as the interim head coach. It wasn’t just the off-the-field distractions that made the job so challenging for Braun, but also the fact that he inherited a team that was fresh off an 1-11 campaign -- its worst single-season since 1989 -- and never coached at the Power Five level before (defensive coordinator at North Dakota State from 2019-22).

Flash forward to this past December and Braun, who was hired as an assistant just six months prior to the scandal, got Northwestern back to its winning ways and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year. It goes without saying that the job he’s done is remarkable.

So, now that the dust has settled following Northwestern’s memorable turnaround, what does year two hold for Braun and the ‘Cats?

Considering Braun’s instant success and program rejuvenation, players are now going to want to buy into him and coaches are going to want to coach under him even more.

Northwestern returns 15 starters, including eight on defense. The defensive front is a veteran bunch and as many as 10 players could fit into the rotation. All-Big Ten linebacker Xander Mueller, who became the first Wildcat to tally 100-plus tackles and 10-plus tackles for loss in a single season since 2016, returns and the secondary is more experienced to the likes of 2023 honorable mention All-Big Ten safety Coco Azema and cornerback Theran Johnson.

The offense is still a work in progress with a new quarterback room and a developing offensive line, but the program added South Dakota State’s offensive coordinator Zach Lujan, who was named the 2023 FCS Coordinator of the Year for the national champion Jackrabbits. With a handful of skill position players making a return, including running back Cam Porter and wide receiver Bryce Kirtz, and a new and more refined scheme, the unit should improve.

In terms of the schedule, Northwestern has road trips to Washington (conference opener), Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan and hosts Ohio State (Wrigley Field) in mid-November. The non-conference slate is tolerable with games against reigning MAC champ Miami (OH), a rebuilding Duke, and FCS foe Eastern Illinois. The Wildcats also dodge three of the four conference newcomers (Oregon, USC, UCLA) and Penn State. Even in a season with a makeshift stadium and a more competitive Big Ten, regaining bowl eligibility is the realistic goal. Northwestern's 2024 season win total is currently 4.5, but is it really wise to bet against Braun? After all, the head coach knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity.

It may take Northwestern years to even be in Big Ten title contention, but it only took Braun four months to turn everything around in Evanston. The odds-defying 2023 season set a new standard within the program, so it's safe to say that the David Braun era is just getting started.

Post-spring Top 25 projections for 2024. Post-spring Top 25 projections for 2024. dark. Next