The 2013 season is coming. It won’t be long now before the Wildcats are kicking things off at Cal 10:30 pm ET on August 31. Between now and then, a few long, boring, semi-painful weeks stand in the way. To help pass the time, I chatted with one of college football’s most celebrated writers for a unique take on the state of NU football and where the Wildcats stand heading into the season.
Not only is Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel an expert on the sport on a national scale, he is, like many readers of this site, a Northwestern alum (1998), and thus provides an especially keen perspective on all things Wildcats. Mandel’s work, including his popular “Mailbag” and “College Football Overtime” column, is featured weekly on SI.com, and you can follow him (@slmandel).
The last time Northwestern won 10 games (1995), it only took two years before the Wildcats regressed to a five-win season. Do you think NU is more likely to sustain an 8-to-10 win standard for the foreseeable future following 2012’s 10-win season?
SM: I think the program is in a much different place than it was then. At the time, that was a phenomenal high – it came out of nowhere. Now under Pat Fitzgerald, they’ve been to five straight bowls and there’s just much more stability in the program.
The other thing I would say is, the Big Ten of 1995 was considerably tougher than the Big Ten of 2013. The Big Ten was considered on par or better than every other conference, and so it was probably unrealistic that they were going to keep winningat that rate.
We’ll see here going forward. I think that all the pieces are in place for a nice, sustained run, but the one thing I would say is that they are in an unfamiliar place in terms of expectations and teams sometimes have trouble handling that when they’re not used to being in the preseason top-25.
Would you say Northwestern has “turned the corner” under Pat Fitzgerald?
SM: Yes. They are consistently and nationally respected as a consistent postseason team, a team that runs an exciting offense. There’s so much respect for Fitzgerald.
And then I do think winning the bowl game, especially against an SEC team, was so critical for them to turn the corner and take the next step.
What do you think has been Northwestern’s most prohibitive barrier in recruiting?
SM: Academics are always going to be an issue, but we’re seeing Stanford as a top-5 team with rigorous academic standards. I think sometimes that gets used as an excuse. It certainly makes things more difficult, but it’s probably not as huge a hindrance as people think.
But I do think that as recently as a few years ago, if you were a kid coming out of high school looking at colleges, you’d probably say, ‘Am I going to go to Northwestern and, if all of the stars line up, get to play in the Alamo Bowl? Or am I going to go to a more traditional program that regularly competes at the highest level?’
Now I think that these kids coming out – like the running back that picked Northwestern over Texas [2014 commit Auston Anderson] – have become legitimately convinced that they can play for a championship there.
Do you think Northwestern using its scholastic reputation as a selling point for academically motivated prospects sort of outweighs the potential drawbacks of having to recruit from a smaller pool of players?
SM: What Stanford has done such a great job of is whittling down the pool in the beginning of the process, so you’re only dealing with kids who have a chance to get in. So now you have a pool of kids who – just to get to that point, academics is obviously important to them – and then you use academics as the selling point.
If a kid is looking at four different schools and three of them are big state schools not necessarily known for their academics, if he’s really the kind of kid already thinking about life without football, then absolutely academics is your biggest selling point in that situation.
That’s what differentiates you from those other schools.
What is Northwestern’s ceiling as a program?
SM: I do think it’s hard – maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been through it plenty of times, having lived there as a student – but I think that’s a little bit of a pie in the sky, to be able to pull off what Stanford’s been doing.
One advantage Stanford will always have over Northwestern is the weather, so if you’re one of those kids who is looking to go to a prestigious academic school and you have both of those as choices, that might be an unfortunate tie-breaker loss for Northwestern sometimes.
Also, in the Pac-12, it’s a different dynamic. The Pac-12 has recently been more wide-open. Oregon certainly has had its run here in the past few years, but in general, teams kind of come and go.
Whereas in the Big Ten, when Ohio State and Michigan have the right coaches – and they do right now – it will always be very difficult for Northwestern to compete with them for recruits and on the field.
Do you think Pat Fitzgerald is a Northwestern “lifer”?
SM: I do. I may be naïve. They can’t just take it for granted. Jim Phillips is smart about this. If he continues to have success, they need to pay him appropriately and they need to invest in the facilities, which they’re doing.
As long as that is to his liking, then I would think you’re safe from losing him to another college. And then it’s just a matter of the NFL, and I’ve never talked to him in detail about that. I know if I tried to, he would try to change the topic. But the guy just bleeds purple – it’s not a cliché. It’s true.
I think the fact that he not only played there, but played there when they went to the Rose Bowl – I think he’s really driven to prove to people that that wasn’t a fluke, that you can do that regularly at Northwestern.
What are your expectations for Northwestern this season?
SM: It’s a tougher schedule than the past couple of years. Sometimes in those situations, you can have a better team and it won’t show in the final record.
I do think the Ohio State game – that’s probably going to be the biggest home game they’ve had there in a while. The atmosphere should be crazy and anytime there’s a night game and the other team is a capable underdog, you never know.
But in general it’s a tougher schedule. First of all, you can’t sleep through that game at Cal. Even though they went 3-9 last year, it’s a completely different offense. It’s tough to go across the country. They have to go play at Wisconsin, who they haven’t had any success against recently. At Nebraska is always tough, Michigan is going to be tough, Michigan State is a team that I think is going to be a darkhorse BCS contender this year.
You look at last year, everyone talks about how they came within a few minutes of going undefeated. At the end of the day, not to discredit, but they didn’t pull it off against the better teams on the schedule and they kind of racked up wins against the lesser Big Ten teams.
So this year, you’re going to have to beat a couple of those ranked Big Ten teams to have the kind of season people are projecting.
What’s your prediction for Northwestern’s win-loss record?
SM: I think if they win nine games, that would be a really good season against this schedule. 8-4 might be more realistic and anything less than that would be a disappointment.