Northwestern is in the midst of its athletic rebirth. Both the men’s basketball and football teams are ranked. This is their best, most consistent stretch of play in the program’s history.
The basketball team made its first NCAA Tournament berth and was ranked in preseason polls for the first time in program history. There will be a lot of time to talk about the Northwestern basketball team in the coming months. It is safe to say the expectations for that team are as high as they have ever been. Nothing less than a NCAA Tournament berth will do.
The football team faced similar expectations. Or, maybe better, received some similar hype.
The Wildcats were the darling pick to upset the Badgers and win the Big Ten West. It felt like with a three-year starter in Clayton Thorson and a senior running back in Justin Jackson, the team had the skill players to make a challenge for the Big Ten title.
In reality, Northwestern has not challenged for a Big Ten title since winning it in 2000. The Wildcats have reached the bowl-game-every-year level for the program, but Pat Fitzgerald has never had his run at the conference title. Even with some pretty good teams.
This was the year.
And then. . .
An early loss to Duke. A loss at Wisconsin in the marquee matchup of the Big Ten West. And then a loss to Penn State a week later.
Northwestern was 0-2 in the Big Ten and 2-3 on the year. The Wildcats’ Big Ten title dreams were pretty much over before the season even started.
That might explain why even student attendance at Ryan Field has lagged a bit — or at least made people wonder where the students are more often than not. The Wildcats lost that big goal and there are still plenty of fans who think “just going to a bowl game” is not enough anymore. Not with the expectations set for this team.
Fitzgerald has risen Northwestern to new heights — going beyond the team’s current ranking in the College Football Playoff standings. His seven bowl games in 11 seasons — soon to be eight in 12 — is an unprecedented run for the program.
The team has reached that level of consistency. And once a team reaches one level, everyone wonders about the next and reaching the next level. That is where fans want Northwestern to go. That is where everyone wants this program and this team to go.
The question is whether anything less is acceptable anymore.
The notion of going to the Foster Farms Bowl, where 6-6 Indiana, 6-6 Nebraska and 6-6 Maryland went the last three years, seems to offend some fans. Never mind a loaded Pac-12 seems certain to send at least a seven-win team there this year and Northwestern would succeed with their Northern California alumni base.
It still feels like it is something that is beneath Northwestern and their record. In some way, it feels like a consolation prize. The disappointment from losing out on the Big Ten at the beginning of the season still hovers over this team.
Those shortcomings and reckoning with a season that is by all accounts a successful one — the Wildcats are 7-3 and will be favored to go 9-3 and end the year on a seven-game win streak. This was not the season Northwestern imagined.
Does that mean the Wildcats should think about making changes to their coaching staff? The calls to make a move offensive remains valid. Northwestern has the 86th best offense in the nation, according to offensive S&P+. The Wildcats have been at about that mark for the better part of five years. And it is the reason Northwestern does not perform as well in that metric as their record would indicate — they have a -1.6 differential between second-order and actual wins.
Northwestern, in other words, is overachieving. Everyone seems to know it. And when the games mattered for Big Ten pecking order, the Wildcats crumbled. They recovered to win three straight overtime games.
So if this season is somehow a failure, or maybe better, not a success, what is a success at Northwestern? What will satisfy everyone?
The Wildcats are a program that needs the stars to align to win a Big Ten title. That was what brought so much promise this season.
Does failing to meet those expectations make the season ultimately a failure? That seems a bit unfair. Especially since it is exceedingly rare for Northwestern to win nine games. Bowl wins are still fairly rare, even after last year’s victory.
This is not the season everyone imagined from Northwestern. The Wildcats still have big questions to answer to get where they want to be contending for the Big Ten title. Wins should not cover up those questions. The Wildcats will have to reckon with them.
Pat Fitzgerald will surely sit back and look at this season once it is over. The actions he take will be telling, but no more than any other. He knows he has built a consistent program that is growing. Maybe not as fast or consistently as everyone wants, but growing nonetheless.
Northwestern’s quick exit from the Big Ten picture does not mean the season was not a success. Or cannot still be a success.
The Wildcats still have many of their goals available to accomplish. But measuring success at Northwestern has undoubtedly changed.