There is an oddness about this season.
Perhaps not for the players, but for the fans. What is Northwestern football without that defining desire for an elusive bowl victory? Suddenly, the Wildcats seem very much like any other successful team in college football — harboring September dreams of a conference championship.
In past years, regular season losses could be forgiven with the knowledge that a postseason victory would make up for any previous sins. Take last year, when blown leads to Michigan and Nebraska were erased by a Gator Bowl victory in Jacksonville. Any disappointment of a blown chance at a truly spectacular season — 11-1 or even 12-0 — was eased by the monkey that was lifted off the Wildcats' backs.
This year will be different, of course, but there will be little time for philosophizing about what a post-Gator Bowl Northwestern will look like. The Wildcats will be tested right away, at Memorial Stadium, against a Golden Bears team that is rolling out the no-huddle offense.
Two very different scenarios could emerge for a prized Wildcats secondary. California's no-huddle offense could stun them as Ryan Nassib and Syracuse did in last season's opener with plenty of long throws down the field, throws Jared Goff is reportedly more than capable of making. Or the Wildcats' secondary and their big playmaker in Ibraheim Campbell could make Goff's college debut a living hell. Goff, unlike Nassib, is a true freshman, who despite his prior experience running the no-huddle in high school, could be in for some freshman mistakes against Northwestern.
The statistic that keeps getting rolled out is that Pat Fitzgerald is 7-0 in season openers — against fairly decent competition at that. No, Northwestern has yet to make a trip to Tuscaloosa like Penn State did, but Fitzgerald's Wildcats have started prior seasons with wins over Vanderbilt, Boston College and Syracuse. But 7-0, wrongly, connotes dominance, and as anyone who has watched Northwestern over the past several years knows, the Wildcats tend not to dominate right out of the gate — unless they're playing Towson.
In 2010, there was the Wildcats' gripping 23-21 victory in Nashville, in which Northwestern barely held off Vanderbilt despite a 19-of-21 performance from Dan Persa. That was with the Commodores, not unlike the Golden Bears, still getting used to a new coach.
In 2011, the Wildcats had plenty of trouble in Chestnut Hill, emerging with a hard-fought 24-21 victory over Boston College. They struggled mightily with Ifeanyi Momah, Boston College's tall wide receiver, and gave up a long run to backup running back Andre Williams on the game's first play from scrimmage.
In 2012, Northwestern did its best to prop up the cardiology business when it nearly blew a 35-13 lead against Syracuse, triumphing 42-41 despite surrendering 12 passing plays of 10-plus yards in the second half alone. Between the long passes and several pass interference calls, the Wildcats looked inept in the secondary.
In short, Saturday could indeed be a coronation for Northwestern, as a national audience on ESPN2 is treated to highlight after highlight from the Wildcats' Gator Bowl victory. But if history has taught us anything, it's that the Wildcats' coronation will be far from seamless.