Before the season, everyone believes the best of themselves. They raise the questions but believe that they will be able to overcome those challenges and reach the highest highs.
The Northwestern Wildcats were not hiding from big expectations for the year. They love to claim they ignore the preseason rankings and predictions — many had Northwestern winning the Big Ten West — but they set those goals themselves. And with third-year starting quarterback Clayton Thorson and senior running back Justin Jackson, the team was more than optimistic of its chances to take that step over.
The roster seemed to line up, the schedule lined up and the momentum from the offseason seemed to line up. It was the rare perfect storm for Northwestern for conference contention. The Wildcats have long waited for their chance to take that next step.
They had to overcome some serious questions to get there. It started with replacing some major contributors in the front seven on defense and reshaping an offensive line that struggled last year. But the preseason is the time for optimism.
The beginning of the conference season is the time for realism.
The real talk is Northwestern is 2-1 with an unimpressive win over Nevada and a disappointing defeat at a much-improved Duke team. Beating Bowling Green 49-7 was impressive, but also expected.
The team has struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, picking up just four sacks through three games. Injuries have ravaged the once strong secondary. The Wildcats may have a relatively vanilla pass rush scheme during the non-conference season, trying to hide things for the Big Ten season.
But things were not as clean on the offensive side either.
Northwestern’s offensive line was inconsistent at best. that is actually quite kind to them. Clayton Thorson has struggled when he gets under pressure as he feels the constant hurry of an offensive line giving up pressure and penetration. And that was just Duke and Nevada. Not Wisconsin.
Justin Jackson has rushed for just 248 yards through three games. And the offensive line has been a big reason for his production decrease.
Again, maybe Northwestern kept their playbook very tight heading into Big Ten season. They are known to do that, springing out a new strategy once the games really start counting.
Then again, how much can Northwestern really do differently? The offensive line could barely create space with basic schemes, how are they supposed to do so — especially against the best of the Big Ten.
And Northwestern, even with a bye week, faces two of the conference’s best teams right off the bat. Northwestern travels to Wisconsin this Saturday and then host Penn State the week after. Those are undoubtedly the best two teams the team will face. The Wildcats may face a 0-2 start, even if they play their best.
This is the moment when Northwestern’s season becomes very real. This is when they really find out how good they are. This is when expectation becomes reality.
That is what the Big Ten season really is about.
So far, the Wildcats have not had a great showing. They have not asserted themselves with the kind of comfortable dominance of a Big Ten contender. So far, it seems like those preseason projections were a bit too optimistic.
This is not to say Northwestern cannot improve. The Wildcats could always surprise and be a factor in Big Ten play. The games are not played on paper. And the Wildcats have found their scrappiness on more than one occasion. They are capable of one brilliant game, as any team is.
But to win the conference, it takes consistency. That has always been the thing Northwestern has struggled with.
And the Wildcats did not look to have that consistent ability through non-conference season.
Northwestern should still have more than enough talent to get four wins and reach a bowl game. But this was meant to be one of those special seasons. Northwestern wanted it to be about much more.
It is hard to say Northwestern is a favorite to accomplish those goals after non-conference season ended. That is not to say Northwestern cannot still be good. But the team did not exactly inspire confidence.
For the Wildcats, their initial goals are still in front of them. Even after all the struggles. Reaching that potential just seems a bit farther than before. The shine has left the veneer of the season after three games.
That can turn around with just one game. But the time for development is over. Now is the time to perform and make it all happen.