I wrote two weeks ago that Northwestern fans will have to figure out how to deal with increased expectations. The Wildcats entered both of the previous two contests as ranked favorites and came out on top. We now rank 16/17 in the nation with home games against Western Michigan and Maine coming up, followed by an off week. Western Michigan put up 5.6 YPP in their previous game, which wouldn’t be bad if not for the fact that it came in a 27-23 loss to FCS Nicholls State in which they trailed for all but seven minutes. Maine, which just won at UMass, may prove to be the tougher “challenge,” but both games should feature second halves of Oliver and the backup running backs. Any sweating that occurs in the stands will be due to another heat wave, not the competition.
After that off week comes one of the most anticipated days in Northwestern football history. You can bet that there will be plenty of breakdown about the possibilities of ESPN’s College GameDay coming to Evanston on October 5. I gave some thoughts a few days ago on Twitter. At this point, I think it’s likely to happen. And if it does, there will be much to talk about, including location, what it means for the program, what to expect as an attendee, and how to avoid making signs as terrible as the ones that were featured in Ann Arbor last week. Seriously, Michigan, those were awful.
But that day is over three weeks away. And while I’d watch this team play anybody, including themselves, these weeks will be relatively void of anticipation, drama, and even storylines. We’ll want to avoid injuries and hope that Mark is ready to go by conference play, but compared to the Cardiac ‘Cat tendencies of this football team in years past, boredom with reach historic levels. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. It’s due to a combination of the quality of this team and how the schedule came together. Remember, we would be preparing to host Vanderbilt if not for them deciding to drop us last year in favor of a cupcake. I’m fairly happy with the way it worked out. Playing a third BCS team would not be particularly helpful right now, even in the rankings.
I went back through past schedules and could not find a three-week stretch that provided no drama since the rejuvenation began under Barnett in 1992. 2010 gave us a stretch of Illinois State, at Rice, and Central Michigan, but the game against the Chips was somewhat close. 2008 started with Syracuse, at Duke, Southern Illinois, and Ohio, but expectations were not that high going into the second half blowout win over Syracuse, Duke had two drives in which they attempted to take the lead in the final minutes, and the matchup against Ohio produced one of the uglier wins in recent memory, a 16-8 victory at Ryan Field.
In fact, the last three-week stretch remotely comparable to the one we’re about to start resulted in a 34-0 win over South Dakota, a 31-3 win over Carleton, and a 20-0 win over Indiana. All three games were played a month before the dedication ceremony for Dyche Stadium in 1926. I’m willing to bet that they didn’t feel as comfortable about that stretch as the stretch we’re starting now. They probably didn’t feel as at ease with the state of polio eradication, either.
So what do we do until October 5? I’m honestly not really sure. I think we have a decent grasp on the strengths we want to see exploited by play calling, the weaknesses around which we want to see growth, and the potential of each unit. We want to see Mark return to full participation in practice, but I don’t sense any panic from fans regarding his availability for conference play.
Right now we wait, dreaming of an early morning and a cool night on the first Saturday of October. Enjoy the next two home games. Go with friends and family, tailgate, and take satisfaction in the direction of this program. And enjoy the rest of the games on TV. The college football season goes by far too quickly to take them for granted.
When the last weekend in September is through, excitement will reach a fever pitch. We’ll know whether GameDay will be coming to Evanston. We’ll have a better sense of the quality of our opponent. For now, sit back, relax, and savor the football season being in full swing. I hear there’s a big game this Saturday afternoon. Just be sure to turn away from the TV when CBS decides to use its “Johnny Cam.”