It's the offseason, meaning it's that time to discuss random hypotheticals that may or may not make you all furious at some of us. We'll have these debates from time to time, starting today with an interesting question: Does Northwestern's football or basketball team have a better future? See what our staff had to say, and feel free to leave your opinion in the comments.
Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) — Football
This is an interesting question, in part because the two programs are at different stages of their supposed ascent. The football program has a few years head start. Last season notwithstanding, Northwestern football has established itself as at least a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. On the other hand, optimism surrounding the basketball program is entirely speculative. There were positive signs in year one of the Collins era – but that’s all they were, signs.
Additionally, success is defined differently for each program. At this point, for the football program to merely be bowl-eligible every year is no longer success; but for the basketball team, an NCAA Tournament berth would be a massive accomplishment. For the purposes of this debate, it’s important to recognize that, and standardize our definitions of success.
With that said, I think the future is brighter for the football program. Fitz has established a baseline that’s pretty stable, and though the program’s momentum has sort of petered out, Fitz continues to flourish on the recruiting trail. Is he the world’s greatest coach? No, certainly not. He and his staff have their faults, some of which were exposed in 2013. And perhaps, whereas Northwestern maybe snuck up on some teams before last season, the Wildcats are now a known commodity. So before progress can continue, Fitz and his staff (particularly Mick McCall) must prove their ability to make adjustments. But there’s a lot of budding talent in these last two recruiting classes, and there’s certainly room on the Big Ten football scene for another team or two to make that step up and compete with the conference’s upper echelon. There’s no reason Northwestern can’t be that team.
As for the basketball program, this is by no means a condemnation of it. In terms of excitement and potential, it’s tough to argue against what Collins is building. His initial recruiting haul was impressive, and there were moments that suggest he can take this program to new heights. But coaching a team at the bottom of the Big Ten and producing several of those moments is totally different than sustaining success throughout a season with a team of average Big Ten talent. Collins’ challenge is to emulate Fitz in establishing that baseline, and I think taking it for granted that he will be able to do so is a mistake; it’s a far tougher task that it might seem. Once he does – if he does – then we can talk about basketball possibly surpassing football. But we’re not there yet.
Josh Rosenblat (@JMRosenblat) — Football
When assessing which program — football or men's basketball — is best positioned for future success, you'll have to look at the landscape of the conference. If you measure success by wins and losses, like I do, the football program is far, far ahead of the basketball program.
For the past handful of seasons, the Big Ten has been one of, if not, the toughest basketball league in the nation. But in football the conference has fallen in quality in recent seasons with traditional powers Ohio State's and Penn State's sanctions and Michigan's struggles. Northwestern has moved up in class in both recruiting and performance. The current staff has been the most stable in the conference and has a knack for developing strong college players.
Taking away nothing from the basketball program, which has its fair share of positives, the football team has already established itself as a solid team in the Big Ten, making them a better bet for more success in the near future.
Jason Dorow (@JasonDorow) — Short-term: Football, Long-term: Basketball
Northwestern basketball has a brighter long-term future than Northwestern football, but football has an edge in the short-term. In his first season, Chris Collins assembled the best recruiting class in NU history and rallied a struggling, athletically-strapped team to 4th place in the Big Ten, mid way through conference play. The team appears to only being trending upward, so nothing should stop Collins from bringing in more quality recruiting classes. Also, NU should be able to exploit the one-and-done era college basketball is in. Northwestern recruits will be talented but not good enough to make the jump to the NBA after their freshman year. Collins will get guys that want to stick around for a while and in several years he should consistently have talented, experienced lineups to work with. The only thing I see stopping Northwestern basketball is the potential for a powerhouse to lure Collins away with a big contract.
Unlike the basketball team, the football team can be successful right away. Collins' squad is simply too young and undeveloped to succeed in the Big Ten. The football team has the talent to compete though. Last year wasn't necessarily a fluke, but luck simply was not on the Cats' side. A different bounce of the ball could have changed the outcome of five of NU's seven losses. Now, they return nine starters on offense and eight on defense. It will be a veteran squad with an improved offensive front, which should help fix their red zone woes. The schedule gets easier in 2014, so the 'Cats should definitely be in a bowl, possibly on New Year's Day. Long-term though, NU football just won't be able to compete with the B1G's juggernauts. Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin are always going to have an edge in recruiting, so Pat Fitzgerald just won't be able to get the 'Cats over the hump.
Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan) — Football
First, we have to define success. Northwestern seems to think of 9-3 as a pretty big success in football, and success in basketball is pretty clearly defined by whether the Wildcats make the NCAA Tournament — so, depending on the schedule, probably around 20 wins at a minimum, not counting the Big Ten Tournament. So which team can meet that benchmark more often?
At this point, it's pretty safe to say the football team is better positioned to win nine games each year than the basketball team is to finish the regular season 20-11. That doesn't mean Northwestern football is going to consistently finish 9-3 — really, it's a 7.5-win program that will sometimes be 9-3 and sometimes be 6-6. However, they're in a much better position to make that jump four times a decade or so than the basketball program is to make the NCAA Tournament that often.
Things could change, and Chris Collins is certainly recruiting well, but even if he keeps recruiting at this rate every season, Northwestern is still only going to have middle-of-the-pack talent in the Big Ten. Maybe they can be an every-other-year NCAA Tournament team, but for now, the football team's future looks more stable and a little bit better.