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How do we define success at Northwestern?

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I'd imagine the answers will vary a lot.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes when I write about Northwestern, I feel like I'm being too critical. Not because my analysis is wrong or overly nitpicky — I maintain that if the coaches change the way they think about offensive success, the team will improve — but because when I look at the past, I feel like I hold this team to a higher standard.

As most of you know — or perhaps, are tired of hearing — I grew up an Iowa fan, and I remember being pretty happy with some years that, in all honesty, I would have scrutinized the hell out of if I was covering them at the time. Was that 8-4 season in 2008 really all that great? Or 7-4 in 2005? You can apply the same logic to my time at Northwestern. I don't consider the 2011 season to be a rousing success by any stretch of the imagination, but it was okay enough to go to a middle tier bowl game, and it had its moments.

So am I overly critical of a season that could very well end up 6-6 (5-3)?

A lot of that depends on what you consider success to be at Northwestern. I sort of asked that question to you this summer, when I asked how many wins NU should average. And while I answered that it should be 7.5 wins, I realized that I would probably still have some criticisms if the Wildcats ended up 8-4. So how can I justify my criticism when I know that it's about where the team should be, on average.

I've grappled with that for awhile, and I think the best answer is that, in some cases, I don't think Northwestern has done everything it can to win with the personnel that it has. I think the failure to make the right statistical calls has left some points on the board. I think the flirting with a power offense hurt the team's chances to win the first few games. I think that some of the drops and the failure to zone to properly zone block are pretty inexcusable.

I know some of these things are bound to happen, as it's a lot to ask a team to get everything possible out of games week in and week out. That's why Northwestern probably should average 7.5 wins per season (at least, in my estimation). But is that success? Is it success to fail to maximize all you can out of a season, but finish with 7 wins?

I don't really know where I'd set the bar. I'd probably call 9-3 or above a successful season, but maybe that's too high. And I know the athletic department doesn't give a damn what I think. But it would be fascinating to see what success is to different groups of Northwestern fans, because I'd imagine the definition would vary wildly. Specifically, what do these groups expect?

  • Coaches
  • Administrators
  • Boosters
  • Diehard fans
  • Casual fans

For administrators, boosters and casual fans, there's likely an academic component of success. I'd imagine a 6-6 or 7-5 season with a top APR score would be plenty for most people in those groups. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's the vibe I get: "Go to a bowl game, act morally superior to others, and we're good!" For the diehards, I'd imagine the academic component is minimized a bit, and the win total expectations are higher, but the coaches' expectations are even more interesting, because we really don't know them, and we probably never well.

Pat Fitzgerald says he expects to win every game, but at the same time, there's not the urgency to be on the national stage at Northwestern like there is in other parts of the country. Nick Saban expects to win every game in that he will seriously be shocked if his team doesn't. For Fitzgerald, I'd imagine it's more of a "we're not conceding defeat" kind of thing. But it begs the question: Is Fitzgerald happy with 8-4? Is he happy with 7-5? Is he happy with 10-2? Again, we're never going to know.

Success is hard to define in sports, and it's especially difficult in college football, when there are so many boosters with different concerns tied to the team. What will it take for this team to be a success? Is it a berth in the Heart of Dallas Bowl to play a nobody, is it a berth in the San Francisco Bowl or something of the such, or is it a Big Ten West championship?

My guess is that this season will feel somewhat satisfying to fans if the second option happens, though they won't consider it a true success unless the latter happens — then maybe 10 years down the road, they'll look back and say that 2014 was pretty damn successful. Or maybe I'm just overestimating what this team should be. Perhaps we'll truly consider this season a success once we've seen it, if we ever do.