In college football, there's a distinct cycle that nearly every year engulfs most programs and their fan bases. It begins with full-fledged optimism throughout the offseason. It continues with increased or renewed hope after every win, and anger and disappointment after every loss. If/When it becomes clear the season will fall short, soul-searching and postmortems commence. And then once fans come to terms with their team's failure, they look towards the future in search of yet more hope.
Many Northwestern fans have reached that final stage. Yes, one crucial game still remains, but at this point, next year is more enticing than a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility.
Furthermore, with Zack Oliver set to start against Illinois in place of the injured Trevor Siemian, the future of Northwestern football seems to be within touching distance. Siemian won't start another game for NU, which means the question that has been looming all year is now more pertinent than ever: Who will be Northwestern's starting quarterback on September 5 when the Wildcats take on Stanford?
There are three real possibilities:
1. Zack Oliver
Oliver, this year's No. 2-turned-starter, will be a senior in 2015, and, barring something unforeseen, will be the only quarterback on the roster with starting experience. That gives him an advantage over his younger competitors.
However, it remains to be seen whether the Illinois game and any potential bowl game augment Oliver's case or damage it. Despite Pat Fitzgerald's supposed loyalty and tendency to play upperclassmen, he would be foolish to start a lesser player at the most important position on the field just because he's a senior.
The book on Oliver says that he's a pretty ordinary gunslinger. He's got a sufficiently strong arm, as evidenced by his deep touchdown throw to Pierre Youngblood-Ary in the Northern Illinois game; his accuracy is mediocre; his ability to read a defense is well-developed; and he has functional mobility.
But the fact that Pat Fitzgerald never felt compelled to make the switch to Oliver midway through the season as Siemian limped his way to a 3-6 record might be telling. He'll be the safe option next year. But Oliver isn't a savior, nor is he the playmaker Northwestern might need under center.
If either Alviti or Thorson makes a statement during spring ball (and if Oliver doesn't impress in his brief opportunity over the next month) Oliver won't have much of a case. But if neither does, he might just be Fitz's default choice.
2. Matt Alviti
Alviti came to Northwestern in 2013 as a four-start recruit and with the label of ‘quarterback of the future.' But from what we've scene in practice, and from what we hear, he hasn't exactly developed as fluently as many hoped or even expected he would.
Alviti is a true dual-threat QB. At 5-foot-11, he loves to escape the pocket and throw on the run. He also is supposedly comfortable running either a traditional option offense or the read option, à la Kain Colter. There are questions though as to his ability to read defenses and grasp Northwestern's offensive concepts.
Unless Alviti makes a big jump between his freshman and sophomore years - which, of course, is definitely possible - his best shot at playing time is as a change-of-pace option, or even possibly in a legitimate two-quarterback system. In fact, if Thorson isn't ready, Pat Fitzgerald's top option might be to package Oliver and Alviti in a two-QB system similar to the one he employed two years ago with Colter and Siemian.
3. Clayton Thorson
Thorson, another big time recruit, predictably redshirted this season, but that didn't quell the rumblings that he was, despite his inexperience, the best quarterback on the roster. From what we saw in practice, he look decent considering he was oftentimes working with the scout team offense.
Like Alviti, Thorson is dangerous with both his arm and his legs, and ran quite a bit of option in high school. But unlike Alviti, he's also 6-foot-4, which allows him to be a more conventional pocket-passer if he needs to be. He's got a powerful arm, and has the best natural skillset of the three.
The dilemma for Fitz will be whether or not he feels comfortable throwing Thorson into the fire ahead of his more experienced teammates. If he shows a mastery of the offense during the spring, it will be tough for Fitz to keep him on the sidelines.
Of course, a lot will happen over the eight months between December and next September, but it's already safe to say that this will undoubtedly be the biggest storyline of Northwestern's offseason. And it's a decision that may define the 2015 season for NU.