Any Northwestern fan will tell you that Northwestern has the worst luck of any team in college football. That goes for fans of most teams, but Northwestern fans really, really drive home that narrative, and last year validated that.
First, there was the close loss to Ohio State on the national stage. Then there was the overtime loss to Iowa. Then the Hail Mary against Nebraska. Then Michigan's last-second field goal. Oh, and don't forget all the injuries.
Last year was the Northwesterniest year to ever Northwestern, according to the fans who will have you believe in the narrative. But when it comes to recent history, that isn't true at all. In fact, last year was a giant outlier, as SB Nation's Bill Connelly explains in this excellent preview:
From 2007-10, the Wildcats went a ridiculous 20-8 in games decided by one possession. That's not supposed to happen. It was fascinating trying to figure out the root cause of this. Were they letting inferior teams hang around too long before finally asserting themselves? Had Fitzgerald and his staff figured out ways to maximize the Little Things™ and close out tight games?
Was Northwestern lucky as hell? Was this all a sample-size issue that would work itself out over time?
It's not just the close games, either. In 2012, NU was a fairly average 3-2 in one-possession games (still not as bad of a record as some would have you believe), but the Wildcats were one of the luckiest teams in the country in terms of health. So while there were a few unlucky streaks in there, Northwestern won far more games than it should have from 2007 to 2012.
Fast forward to 2013. Along with the aforementioned close losses, the Wildcats were incredibly unlucky on the injury front. After losing the fewest starts to injuries in the Big Ten in 2012, they lost the most in 2013, and even more players were playing injured. In 2013, Northwestern was about as unlucky as a team can possibly get. Yet somehow, even with an injury-diminished team, NU shouldn't have been as bad as it record showed. The Wildcats finished 57th in the Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings, right around Nebraska, Maryland, Vanderbilt and Northern Illinois.
So why am I making you relive this? To assure you that it's going to get better in 2014.
No, a bad 2013 season doesn't mean things will overcorrect in 2014. However, there's such a small chance this combination of close losses and injuries ever happens that it's very unlikely to happen again this year. With so many players coming back on both sides of the ball and a tweaked offense that will likely do more to incorporate the wide receivers — NU's most talented group — it's hard to see the Wildcats not being markedly better in 2014. As a fan, I get it if you're skeptical, but take solace knowing that objectively, it will be very hard for things to be 2013-bad once again.
A couple weeks ago, I tweeted that CBS Sports' Jerry Palm was crazy for leaving Northwestern out of his bowl projections for this very reason. A team with most players returning from a 5-7 season that, despite an incredible number of injuries, should have ended in a bowl berth should not be projected to finish 5-7 again. A basic knowledge of statistics tells us that, and Palm is known for his work in statistics.
A bunch of people tweeted at me that Palm wasn't crazy, because Northwestern proved last year that nothing is certain. This is true, but the logic is flawed, because by using every objective measure we have, the Wildcats are far more certain to make a bowl game than they are to not do so.
Take bowl games out of the picture, and things are still bound to get better for NU. And who knows, maybe they'll even revert to their lucky ways and win a few more games than they should.