At some point, nine wins became the expectation. I don’t remember when–or how–it happened. Standing in the tunnel after Northwestern finally won its bowl game, reflecting on the memorable but imperfect season, watching the team bring out its trophy during the usual basketball loss, we could pause before looking forward.
There was one exception. In the Jacksonville airport, I looked up the 2013 schedule and saw: Ohio State, October 5th. I turned to Chris Emma and said: “That might be the biggest game in program history.”
It might be, barring a surprise non-conference loss. There are few obstacles to bringing College Gameday to Evanston, with the Wildside student section’s “Fitzerland” tailgate designed to intoxicate everyone even more. After that, there is fear; fear that the results may not match our lofty expectations for this season of NU football.
The hype is deserved. It’s also unparalleled. The Wildcats entered spring ball with the classic “5:03” shirts, representing how far they were from an undefeated season.
The first stage is belief, and NU has every ounce of it. Surrounded by the team, analysts see the depth and the flaws—knowing NU’s “potential.” And fans can dream of that potential being realized and of everything going right.
It never does. The “5:03” shirts are genius for Fitz’s purposes but of course, severely misleading. It’s fairly straightforward: NU lost close games and won close games and the luck balances out.
The Cats were bailed out by a terrible call at Syracuse, allowing them to escape fourth-and-six en route to the thrilling 42-41 win. They outplayed Vanderbilt and Boston College, but still needed to hold off their solid opponents. Even Michigan State and Minnesota provided challenges.
That’s not to deny the fact that NU “could” technically have won all of its games. It just takes some impressive fan vision (which, thankfully, most of our message board users possess) to really believe it. But at the end, “5:03” screams negative memories. Their best wins came against good-not-great teams, and that will need to change if they hope to replicate or outdo last season’s record.
It is news of itself, though, that Northwestern has made us believe in the first place. It is why I think NU will go an impressive 9-3 (more on my season predictions in Part Two of this column) including wins against Nebraska and an improved Michigan State team.
It is news of itself that nearly every NU beat writer predicts a win against Michigan, which would serve as redemption for last year’s debacle. Regardless of which former five-star recruits the Wolverines trot out to surround Devin Gardner, the Wildcats can compare their talent with anyone else’s. What a world we live in.
Where there were weaknesses, there are now fixes. Last season, NU opened with Davion Fleming as a starting safety. They quickly moved to Jared Carpenter, an overachieving fifth-year senior. But now, Traveon Henry looks to complete the ideal safety tandem—part of the incredible secondary overhaul.
Remember when the running back situation was largely dormant? When no one knew if there were any passable Big Ten starting cornerbacks on the roster? Say that with a straight face now. Asked during a recent podcast which “weakness” might hurt the team, I couldn’t even out a single position group.
It would be redundant to list the reasons for optimism. There are enough from training camp, the roster, Venric Mark, Kain Colter, Tyler Scott and many more. (I listed them anyways; it’s tempting.) I believe in the potential.
Here’s what else:
8-4 is not a bad season. If they fall to, say, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan, there’s always a bowl game and the promise of next year.
This team is better, faster and uniquely focused. Through excellent and consistent need-based recruiting, Fitzgerald and his staff found the ideal replacements and pieces to give us legit Big Ten Championship hopes.
I don’t believe in “5:03.” I don’t believe that preaching the idea of “one or two key plays from winning it all” applies to this team. Northwestern needs to be even better. They can do it. But as good as last year was, it hardly felt like the precedent.
They should begin by punting California tomorrow and racing through the non-conference schedule, all the while finding out which players work well in various sets. Let the backups fight for every single snap, hoping for enhanced roles. Then, October the fifth.
In last year’s loss to Nebraska, the NU faithful remembers the long missed field goal and dropped interceptions. We could ignore the stalling offense and sad lack of cornerback depth with Nick VanHoose on the sidelines. To beat the best, to make the Rose Bowl, to go undefeated, you need to shore up every potential weakness and then kill.
How good, we wonder, can this season be?
There are reasons why our expectations are bloated or justified, depending on your perspective.
There is still so much for the Wildcats to prove, whether it’s simple late-game execution or fixing mistakes they once fell victim to.
Yet we watched training camp and game week practices, fully cognizant of what they do have: depth, speed and so many weapons.
To approach our hopes, Northwestern needs to be better than last season and better than almost every year before.
We can anticipate greatness. Only they can prove it.