"It's a season where we have no idea what to expect." Well, let's talk expectations...
Although the poll at the bottom is mainly focused on the number of expected wins in 2012 (I'm only allowed one poll in this post), I'd like for this to be a discussion about expectations of Northwestern football in general.
Okay, let's get to it...
Priority No. 1, even more than winning the Big Ten title, has to be to get to a bowl game and win it. Not only would this mean that Pat Fitzgerald's teams have gone to five straight bowl games (a first-ever in program history), it would also show that the program has a clear floor--which was kind of proven when the Wildcats went to a bowl game in 2011, but posting a sub-.500 season would make us question everything. Plus, a bowl win would get the proverbial monkey off Fitzgerald's back (and give people something else to talk about the next time 'round).
Priority No. 2? Beating Illinois. I don't know how a questionable Zook unit has managed to beat a statistically more talented Wildcat team two years in a row, but it happened. Unless you count the Michigan game, there was probably never a more "What the hell" moment last year than when Illinois somehow took home the win.
What's the Problem?
Is it Fitzgerald? Is it the stringent academic requirements?
Concerning Fitzgerald, record-wise it has gotten worse since what everyone thought was a breakthrough in 2008 where the Wildcats went 9-4, only to go 8-5, 7-6, and 6-7 the following years, with a bowl loss each time--as if anyone needs to be reminded of this. Yet despite the record, Fitzgerald has an unquestionable dedication to his alma mater, does the right things, believes in the right things, says the right things, and gets the right players. Overall record and bowl hump aside, it's tough for any Wildcat not to be proud of Ol' Fitz.
What about the academic requirements? There has been much heated debate over this (and rightfully so), with comparisons made to Northwestern's academic rivals, Stanford, Duke, and Michigan, and how they're doing. Yet let's not forget the key ingredients to those programs' success or lack thereof. After a slurry of seasons where every other year seemed like another chance to go 1-11, Stanford got the once-in-a-lifetime coaching years of Jim Harbaugh, who rebuilt and revolutionized the program we see today. Duke has always been a basketball school. And Michigan, even in their worst years, has been Michigan forever.
Personally, I do think some of Northwestern's recruiting woes comes from a ruthlessly judgmental and supercilious admissions office (turning down a 4.0 student!? Srsly!?), but like Notre Dame, Wildcats kind of pride themselves on the value of being an overly-exclusive school, like one of the Ivy-League. The debate on whether to maintain the status quo or relax the admission standards for athletes (a practice common across college football, even in private institutions) on the basis that athletics are so often a window to the university will doubtlessly rage on for decades to come. Just as it should. Carry on, my wayward son.
What about 2012?
It kind of sucks that this year Northwestern is stuck a division that is clearly the tougher of the two and doesn't have the indirect benefit of seeing a team within that division ineligible for the championship game. (On the other side, Wisconsin practically has a cakewalk to Indianapolis.) As sucky as these circumstances are, that's really how it would be any year. Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Iowa are all viable contenders for the Legends Division, and I doubt that is ever going to change.
We can talk about the possibility of Kain Colter surpassing Persa, the frustrating can-you-even-see-the-horizon defense, or Fitz's efforts to rally some fan support (a novel idea) by getting the word out in Chicago. All these things will have a clear impact on Northwestern's future in the short term and the one that is off in the distance.
What about after 2012?
We can talk about expectations this year, but it's also important to discuss long term goals. The overall direction of the program. With the era of the BCS and the bowl system fading fast, just how many years is it going to take Fitzgerald to lead Northwestern to Pasadena and the eternal jewel of the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl? Are fans satisfied with being an academics-first program that goes to bowl games every year but struggles to get into the conversation about a conference, and even national, championship?
What say you? Let's hash this thing out.
P.S. I wish I could make more polls.