It's pretty difficult to take any positives away from such a dire performance, especially one that ends a season prematurely. Northwestern's 47-33 loss to rival Illinois was certainly a deflating one. There's no disputing that.
But - while I don't want it to seem as if I'm trying to dig as deep as is necessary to find positivity - I believe that, in the long term, losing against Illinois actually might've been in the best interest of Northwestern football.
Oftentimes in sports, franchises and programs get tunnel vision. They are so exclusively focused on their missions and everything that goes on under their umbrellas that they don't even take the time to consider that that mission might be flawed. There are countless examples of this in all major professional and college sports.
In times like these, it usually takes a shock to the system to force those in charge to see the big picture - to snap out of that state of narrow-mindedness. There needs to be something that disrupts the status quo. There needs to be something that deviates so drastically from what can be considered acceptable that it provokes discomfort within.
Had Northwestern finished 6-6 and qualified for a meaningless bowl game, this season wouldn't have provided that shock. In fact, Pat Fitzgerald probably would've dubbed it a success, lauded how his players turned the season around down the stretch, and maybe even insisted his team had momentum heading into 2015. We know that would've been utter nonsense, but he might've actually believed it.
Of course, after the loss, Fitzgerald shockingly said, "Our program is as strong and as stable as it's ever been." But when he sits down to assess the state of his kingdom next week or the week after, he cannot possibly come to the conclusion that that is actually the case. It's unacceptable to tolerate a losing season. It's unacceptable to be resigned to mediocrity just because that's what Northwestern has been historically. What's the point if Fitzgerald and AD Jim Phillips don't strive to be something better? With a bowl game, Fitzgerald could've realistically come to the conclusion that his program is "strong and stable." Without one, he cannot.
Now, he has no choice. He must accept failure. And he must address it. Furthermore, he knows this requires change. Despite that absurd statement, he later admitted that he'd scrutinize everything. The dejection that he'll feel will compel him to do so.
Soul-searching will ensue. Fitzgerald will give the program a proper inspection, and when he does, he'll be unable to hide from its blemishes and shortcomings. And once he becomes aware of them, how can he not address them?
We have no idea how significant the changes will be. Assistant coaches might go. But they might not. Regardless of how superficially tangible the changes are though, Saturday made them inevitable. They were always necessary. Before the loss to Illinois, they were possible. Now they're inevitable.
Two or three years from now, we very well might look back on Saturday's loss as a turning point of the Pat Fitzgerald era. But not a negative one - a positive one.