Three questions for 2016: Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern bounced back in a big way in 2015, winning 10 games and finishing 13th in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

The Wildcats rode a strong defense and a solid running game to earn just the fourth double-digit win season in school history. But some of the team's shortcomings, namely on offense, were exposed in the 45-6 Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee.

Can Pat Fitzgerald's team repeat the magic in 2016? Depends on the answers to these three pressing questions:

1. What's next for Clayton Thorson?: Northwestern got to 10 wins despite starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Thorson showed good poise and was able to make some key plays in big moments, particularly when he took off out of the pocket. But it's also true that the Wildcats often won despite, or at least unrelated to, what Thorson was doing. He completed just 50.8 percent of his passes, averaged less than 120 passing yards per game and threw nine interceptions against only seven touchdowns. Northwestern will need more from its quarterback in 2016 and will have to hope that Thorson develops his game after getting 13 starts under his belt.

2. Where are the offensive playmakers?: Northwestern finished dead last in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging just 19.5 points per game. How a team can score under 20 points per contest and still win 10 games is a bit mysterious and quite likely not sustainable. So how does that get fixed? The Wildcats know they can count on workhorse tailback Justin Jackson, who carried the ball 312 times for 1,418 yards in 2015. It would be great if they could lighten his load and get more going in the passing game. That's not all on Thorson; Northwestern's wide receivers have underachieved for a couple of years now, and its most reliable weapon, superback Dan Vitale, is graduating. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has to find more guys who can make big plays; only 14.2 percent of Northwestern's plays in 2015 went for 10 yards or more, and that ranked last among 127 FBS teams.

3. Can the defense repeat its performance?: The Wildcats made up for their shaky play on offense by shutting opposing teams down. They allowed just 18.5 points per game, and that stat includes the Tennessee debacle. That was the best defensive showing in years from the program and makes you wonder if it's repeatable. The defense will lose some valuable performers, including defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Nick VanHoose. But stalwarts like All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker and underrated cornerback Matthew Harris are back. Fitzgerald has improved the speed and athleticism of this defense, which should keep it among the better units in the Big Ten. But asking it to carry the load as much as it did in 2015 doesn't seem like a sound formula for success.