If Northwestern beats Illinois on Saturday, it will clinch bowl eligibility with a 6-6 record. As a result, the Wildcats would likely spend part of the holidays in Detroit, Dallas or some other city far away from Evanston, Ill., playing in a sparsely attended consolation game against a mediocre Power 5 team or an overachieving mid major outfit. Northwestern would also be allotted a certain number of practices, which could pay dividends down the road.
All things considered, if this scenario were to come to pass (re: if Northwestern doesn't get beat on its home field Saturday) would this season viewed, from those both inside the program and those outside it, as a success, a failure or something in between?
Let's start with the former group. At Big Ten Media Days in July, quarterback Trevor Siemian was quoted as saying the following: "My personal goals are in alignment with our team goals, and that is to win the West Division and a Big Ten Championship," according to The Daily Northwestern's Zack Moore. Let's assume Siemian is telling the truth - which wasn't the case when he clued us in on his 40 time - and he and his teammates really did enter this season striving to win a division and conference title.
The preseason goals of latter group are more difficult to pin down. On the one hand, there was an optimistic faction - led by whoever gave Northwestern a championship vote in the preseason media poll - that truly believed the Wildcats were a factor in the conference championship race. Another group, one I perceived to be the majority, thought them less formidable but still capable of bouncing back from a disappointing, 5-win 2013 season with 7-9 wins.
There were, without doubt, some folks who thought Northwestern would fall short of the postseason but the consensus seemed to be that the Wildcats were a mediocre-if-solid Big Ten squad with the potential to pull an upset or two and make things interesting against the real conference contenders (which, in Northwestern's case, meant Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska). For what it's worth, a win Saturday would put the Wildcats in line to claim fifth place in the West, one spot below where conference media projected them to land in the preseason.
It's important to point out that these projections were made before we learned that two of Northwestern's top offensive weapons wouldn't be available this season. Not having Venric Mark or Christian Jones further hampered an already subpar attack waving goodbye to its dynamic dual-threat quarterback - to the point that the Wildcats managed only 16 points in consecutive losses to Iowa and Michigan and now ranks last in the conference in yards per play and 93rd nationally in Football Outsiders' S&P ratings. Even a little more playmaking punch may have netted the Wildcats one or two more win. The counterargument? Northwestern played most of last season without Mark and seemingly had enough receiver depth to compensate for Jones' injury.
Whatever the impact of the absences of those two players, they don't explain why Northwestern laid duds against Cal, Northern Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. Sure, the Wildcats ran into a buzzsaw (and top-10 pick at left tackle that obliterated everything in his path) in Iowa City, but they probably should have beaten the Bears and the Huskies. What was sort of strange about those losses was the timing - Northwestern has performed relatively well in the noncon in recent years, yet it came out flat against two ostensibly beatable teams.
As easy as it is to harp on Northwestern's ugly losses, a tip of the cap is in order for the three surprising wins it pulled off at Penn State, against Wisconsin and at Notre Dame. For reasons not strictly related to the quality of opponent, the victory in South Bend will resonate the most among Wildcats fans (and players). Though that win over the Badgers looks better by the week - they're undefeated since, in case you didn't notice - and will merit a few more gold stars if they can beat Minnesota this weekend and upset Ohio State in the conference championship game.
Still, even if the celebration-worthy Ws negate some of the disappointment over those bad losses, it's easy to see why some may feel that Northwestern didn't quite reach its potential this season. For one, there's the simple comparison between the 5/6-win regular-season record (depending on what goes down Saturday) and the popular 7-9 range projection in the preseason. But I suspect that 2014 will feel like even more of a drag for those who expected to see some signs that Northwestern was trending back toward that 10-win 2012 campaign.
Whether it's reasonable for Northwestern to strive for those heights on a yearly basis is another matter entirely. Many point to Northwestern's Big Ten cellar-dwelling past to tamp down expectations - to say that because of where this program has historically existed in the college football food chain, it's unrealistic to hope for sustained progress. A blip of success, in other words, should not be mistaken for the new status quo.
It appears Clemson-Ole Miss Syndrome has struck my alma mater. http://t.co/j3Wr0FPCyy Rough 2 years, but they had a rough 50 not long ago.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 10, 2014
But it's not hard to see why some might think otherwise. The Wildcats' recruiting has improved (though their ability to develop those recruits may have not), and a sparking lakefront athletics facility should only help attract more talent to Evanston. Better players, more wins! The future is bright! Plus, perspective tends to get lost in the rush of optimism that comes with a signature win. Northwestern's 34-20 triumph over Mississippi State in the 2013 Gator Bowl - which capped the Wildcats' first double-digit win season since 1995, ended a more-than-six-decades bowl drought and prompted Fitz to say "We're here now, and we're here to stay" - certainly qualifies.
Whatever your view on the trajectory of this program, Northwestern will ultimately fall one or two wins short of what most expected before the season began. That scenario would be disappointing for any fan base, and in the Wildcats' case, it probably requires a revisiting of the question of whether the program has slipped. For most, then, 2014 will not qualify as a success, even if it ends with a bowl game.