Now, a team that went 10-3 last year and was expected to lead the Legends division this year lingers alongside the ilk of Illinois and Purdue with an 0-5 conference record.
But let's go back to the hype of GameDay for a second. Of course, a great deal of it had to do with Northwestern's high ranking, undefeated record and match-up with the best team in the Big Ten.
Even so, there was a broader theme that underwrote the weeks leading up to the game itself: The idea that good football and great academics in Evanston could co-exist, and that the future of the program was brighter than ever.
While this season is a dumpster fire in every way, shape and form, nothing about that fundamental theme of sustainable success has changed. It's difficult to buy into it now that the team is floundering, but becomes easier when you remember the context that frames this fall from grace so disastrously.
2012 was something few could have anticipated and no one could have predicted. A team entering a rebuilding year competed for the conference championship, won 10 games and finally killed a bowl drought that almost lasted longer than the Soviet Union. On top of that, 13 high school football players chose Northwestern instead of schools like Texas, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, etc. because they believed in what this program could do.
Naturally, excitement going into 2013 was high, and reached a fever pitch when a team with glaring issues scrapped its way to a No. 16 ranking and an undefeated record. The attitude going into the Ohio State game encapsulated everything that's wonderful and awful about the university's student body. It screamed: "We're smarter than you, we're better than you and we're finally here."
And then it all came crashing down.
Did Northwestern fans put too much faith in a team that obscured major flaws with easy matchups and low-likelihood turnover conversions? Possibly, but it still doesn't explain how the team that played Ohio State so close is now so far from relevance in the Big Ten.
Three days before the Ohio State game, I wrote that the Gator Bowl win was merely a stepping stone, and that the upcoming match-up represented an opportunity for Northwestern to earn the hype it was receiving. The team unequivocally blew that opportunity not in Evanston that night, but in Madison the next week, home against Minnesota after that and then in Iowa City. Simply put, Northwestern might have arrived on the national stage, but it quickly stumbled and fell straight into the pit.
Northwestern will have to regroup to earn another shot like the one it got on Oct. 5. When this season is over, personnel and strategy adjustments may need to be made, and with so much talent leaving it may be another season before we can even consider Northwestern to be competitive again.
Even so, the foundation upon which 2012's success and 2013's hype was built still remains in place. For positive signs, look to the early development of freshmen Matt Harris and Warren Long, who are already seeing significant playing time for a program marketed as a five-year experience. Look to the promise of Matt Alviti, Godwin Igwebuike, Tommy Fuessel and Jayme Taylor, who have impressed us in practice.
And most importantly, look to the 13 talented young men who committed to Northwestern over other excellent schools, and look to the head coach that gave them a reason to do it.
This season maybe the rock bottom for football in the Pat Fitzgerald era, and next season might even be worse. But Wildcat fans can look forward to brighter—if distant—days for one simple reason: This is still Northwestern football, and for the first time in over 60 years, that's actually a good thing.