For the first time in a long time, Northwestern football players concluded spring practice not with the weight of a disappointing season and a bitter taste in their mouths, but rather with the shattered visages of a tired tradition left behind in Jacksonville and an almost certain spot in the AP Preseason Top 25 awaiting them.
There have been tangible improvements - like the formation of a deep corps of rushers and the emergence of Traveon Henry at safety – and intangible ones like the strengthening of already powerful team chemistry and an official end to the bowl drought that plagued the program for so long.
However, the most notable change this spring transcends depth chart climbing, backslapping, rushing and ball hawking. It's the team mentality that's changing most drastically. The 64-year-old drought is over. Now another number, 5:03, is guiding how the team not only sees its past, but also its future.
5:03, if you haven't read already, is the estimated amount of time added separating the 2012 Wildcats from an undefeated season. The number, emblazoned on the back of each player's practice shirt, is meant to be a reminder of how close a team that already accomplished history was to making even more of it – history that could have ended with a parade down Evanston's Sheridan Road.
Whether or not that concept is valid, the point Pat Fitzgerald and his squad are making is clear. Gone are the days of navigating the enigmatic bowl process, weighing the pros and cons of each opportunity and hoping that this is the year the streak gets broken. Here are the days of aiming higher, achieving greater, and doing amazing things for the first time ever.
All signs point to another strong season for Northwestern, but with games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan, there is a lot more than five minutes separating the Wildcats from an undefeated campaign.
There's no question that the Wildcats are good, but with an imperfect dual-quarterback system and lingering questions in the secondary, there's no reason to say that a 12-0 record in 2013 is a birthright. And even in the midst of last season's success, the Wildcats proved that no Northwestern lead is a safe lead, no matter how late in the game it may be.
For a team that focuses on going "1-0" each and every week, it's not as if the upcoming season is automatically fast-tracked for perfection. Rather, that 12-0 record the Wildcats believe they came so close to last year is a mere possibility for them. And after all, isn't that something in and of itself?
Think back to just two years ago, when the Wildcats were 2-5 going into their October 29th game at Indiana, their first conference win. Dan Persa was 50 percent healthy at best, Mike Trumpy had torn his ACL, and the secondary struggled in every department.
Think back to the end of that season, when after four game winning streak, Northwestern salvaged enough of a disappointing season to lose to Texas A&M in the Meineke Care Care Bowl of Texas.
Did anything other than a 7-5 record and a third-class bowl game seem possible then? How about a 10-3 record, near wins over Nebraska and Michigan, and bowl victory?
5:03 is nothing more than a reminder that sometimes when the right Wildcats do the right things, they can achieve at unexpected levels.
It's one of the most important messages cemented in these spring practices, which saw players of all levels and positions pop out of the woodwork and make strong statements.
An undefeated season is a lofty goal, but not an unattainable feat for this team. Give them five minutes, and they might be able to show you why.