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Northwestern is a Big Ten West contender ... really

It's not an absurd suggestion after a 2-0 Big Ten start.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

We like to have fun here at InsideNU, so after the game, I decided to change the breaking news banner on our website from the still-true "Northwestern leads Big Ten West" to a link to hotel rooms in Indianapolis. After all, if things hold, a lot of Northwestern fans are going to need those in a few months.


Of course, there's a very good chance that things won't hold. Northwestern might be 2-0 in conference play, but the Wildcats still have to play Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan (lol) — all of whom they can potentially lose to. But after consecutive wins over Penn State and Wisconsin, it's time to start thinking about what this season could be. And it's certainly fair to entertain the idea that the Wildcats could finish this season in Indianapolis.

There will be detractors, but let me make my case for why it's a real possibility.

1. The Big Ten West is bad

We've written this twice already, but it's becoming more true each week. Wisconsin was believed to be the best team in the division heading into this game, and how the Badgers have lost to Northwestern. Iowa, like NU, can't move the ball. Nebraska has struggled at times and nearly lost to McNeese State. Minnesota's offense is awful. And Purdue and Illinois are Purdue and Illinois.

On October 4, there is a legitimate argument that Northwestern is the best team in its division. That might be due to the competition, but it doesn't matter. This is who the Wildcats have to beat, and it looks awfully manageable right now.

2. This was no fluke

Melvin Gordon had a career high, but this wasn't a game that Northwestern "should have had." The Wildcats were only a little bit worse at moving the ball than the Badgers, and they made far fewer mistakes. Even the most delusional Wisconsin fan couldn't say that the Badgers deserved to win this game.

Northwestern's defense has proven its merit in the past two weeks. There were mistakes on the edge that led to Gordon's big runs, but the front seven is really good, and the secondary has made the plays necessary to win. And the offense looks competent. The offensive line is blocking much better, Justin Jackson is a future star at running back, the wide receivers are finally living up to the hype and Trevor Siemian is improving game-by-game. These wins were not a bad team getting lucky.

3. The talent level is incredible ... for Northwestern

Of the five players Northwestern brought to talk to the media today, four of them were freshmen or sophomores. Three of those players were four-star recruits (Justin Jackson, Godwin Igwebuike and Ifeadi Odenigbo), and the other, Matt Harris, was a high three-star who was a high school track phenom and chose NU over Wisconsin. It's no coincidence that the Wildcats' defense is much-improved and that the team is also bringing in higher-ranked players.

I've used this quote a lot this year, but before the season, Ibraheim Campbell said that there's a "new level of athlete" on defense this year, and he's absolutely correct. It was evident with the front seven against Penn State, and it was evident as Igwebuike and Harris stepped up big-time against Wisconsin. This talent will be around for a long time, and it has set the Wildcats up for a bright future.

But forget about the future — there's absolutely no reason we shouldn't be thinking about this team making the Big Ten Championship Game in 2014. There will be nightmares about some of Siemian's missed throws and there will be nightmares about the first two games.

I understand that, I really do. If there are far too many Hail Marys and injuries and inexplicable comebacks to convince you that Northwestern will not end up in Indianapolis, I don't blame you. But Northwestern is a legitimate Big Ten West contender, and whatever its faults, this team is probably better than you think it is.

The defense is there. The offense is getting there. The wins ... well they're definitely there. Northwestern is on top of the Big Ten West, and it's hitting its stride at the right time. It might not be time to book your hotels to Indianapolis just yet, but at least we can think about keeping our schedules free on December 6 and it won't be ridiculous to do so.