After Northwestern lost to Nebraska two weeks ago, I wrote about how the Wildcats were boring and predictable, and how that probably wasn't going to change. This isn't a bad program, I wrote. It's just not one that seems to be dedicated to being relevant for more than a short period at a time.
Stubbornness breeds familiarity, and we know all too well how this season will end - probably with a 6-6 record, possibly in Dallas to play a bowl game that most of the country is ignoring. If, beyond the rhetoric about competing for championships, that's fine for this program, then good on them. Just don't be too hurt if people choose not to watch it all unfold.
Surprisingly, half of the readership for that article came from Iowa sites, and as Black Heart Gold Pants tweeted, I could have written the same thing about the Hawkeyes.
We've already discussed how similar Iowa and Northwestern are statistically this season, but ironically, the state both programs is eerily similar. Both teams expected to contend in the Big Ten West at the beginning of the year, as they should have. It's a weak division in a weak conference, and both seemingly had the playmakers to make some noise. Instead, they've struggled to mediocre seasons. Northwestern hasn't put together good games with any consistency, and you could argue that Iowa hasn't had a single impressive win yet.
It's a strange feeling a disappointment surrounding both fan bases, but not the same kind of disappointment you would get at South Carolina or Texas A&M this year. Those fan bases know they'll be back, because their schools have shown, beyond the typical rhetoric of coaches, that they have a legitimate expectation to be nationally relevant for more years than they're not. In Columbia and College Station, it's a disappointment best described as "well damn, this season sucks." Hell, you could even say that about Michigan.
But in Iowa City and Evanston, it's a different kind of disappointment. It's "here we go again" combined with "is this what we're stuck with?" And unfortunately for both fan bases, there isn't any evidence to suggest that something is going to change the course.
We've had a lot of discussions around these parts about what success is at Northwestern, and I've been accused of being too optimistic about what this program can be. To be clear, I have no delusions that Northwestern is going to compete for the Big Ten title every season. That would suggest that it's a program that can reload, like an LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, etc. That is not (and will not) ever be Northwestern. The best the Wildcats can ever hope to be is Stanford, though it's unlikely they'll ever get the administrative backing necessary to make that a reality.
But college football is supposed to be cyclical, with a few down years and a few up years. It's supposed to be peaks and valleys, and I'd argue that's the best for fans — they can know when to be excited about 7-5 and when to be disappointed in that same record.
But at Northwestern, it doesn't appear to be cyclical. At least it hasn't since the Randy Walker era. The Wildcats had a great year in 2012, due mostly to losing to who they should lose to and also not losing to anyone terrible. But since the late 2000s, despite bringing in better talent, NU has gotten worse. Maybe luck has hit the cyclical nature of the team, since the 2007 to 2010 teams were incredibly lucky, while the 2013 team was incredibly unlucky. Maybe this is just a down year with average luck, and soon we'll see an up year with average luck, and the pattern will make more sense. Maybe NU will revert to its Walker era teams, but with better down years because of improved talent. But it appears to be more than that. The coaches talk about wanting to compete nationally, but they've yet to be innovative enough to make it happen.
The same is true in Iowa City. In 2008, fans knew to be happy with 8-4, since it was a rebuilding year, and consequently, a stellar 2009 happened. In 2006, they were skeptical of a 7-4 that should have been better, and consequently, a bad 2007 — during the true down period — happened. There were down years, but usually they came when they should have.
Now, it seems like every year is the same. Iowa has gone 7-5 or 8-4 every year except for 2012 since 2010, and the Hawkeyes don't seem likely to reverse that trend any time soon. Kirk Ferentz all but said Iowa's not going to be be a national player by saying he's never going to play meaningful non-conference games.
Both of these programs can be better. Iowa has more money than just about everyone. Northwestern is recruiting better, and the school is investing more in its program than it ever has. But both seem stuck in a rut that they can't get out of.
In both Iowa City and Evanston, there's some mix of apathy and complacency that's far more dangerous than being cyclical. College football really isn't all that fun at either school, and subsequently, interest in the teams has naturally declined. Someone will win on Saturday, but around the country, nobody will be paying attention. And I don't have much confidence that America be watching either team in this matchup in seasons to come.
Such is the curse of consistent mediocrity that both of these programs desperately need to shake.