After a disappointing 2013 season, Northwestern football fans have endured a long offseason, and have waited patiently for their Wildcats to be given a chance to prove that last season was a fluke. 2014 will be that chance. And now, with the season just two months away, it’s time to talk expectations.
In a Q&A with Josh Moyer of ESPN’s Big Ten blog last week, Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian was asked what would make Northwestern’s 2014 season a success. His response? A Rose Bowl win. Clearly, Siemian has high expectations for himself and his teammates, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not many fans or media actually believe that will happen.
However, it’s an intriguing question. What would make Northwestern’s 2014 season “successful”? We presented our writers with the question, and they’ve responded. Feel free to chime in with your response in the comments or on social media.
Northwestern fans were understandably bummed about the way 2013 turned out. It was even tougher, of course, because of the success the team had in 2012, winning 10 games and a bowl for the first time in six decades. I don’t think the Wildcats need to reach double-digit wins to make 2014 successful. But with a more manageable schedule and plenty of talent coming back, bowl eligibility should be the baseline expectation, with a realistic goal of winning seven or eight games. With some better luck – and fewer injuries – this team might even be capable of competing for a division championship. That possibility will raise expectations, which could make attaining “success” difficult. What I’m getting at here is that the answer to this question depends on your perspective. How good do you think this team is? And if it turns out slightly worse, does that mean this season wasn’t a successful one?
I don't blame Siemian for saying Northwestern's goal should be the Rose Bowl, since saying anything else would likely get him the Jurgen Klinsmann treatment from NU alum Michael Wilbon. However, the Rose Bowl seems like a pretty lofty goal. That said, I think NU has the chance to surprise a lot of people this year, and really, winning the division and getting to Indianapolis isn't that much of a pipe dream.
The contenders all have weaknesses. Wisconsin will have a running game, but there's no indication where the passing game will come from. Plus, the defensive front seven will be almost entirely new. Iowa could be shaky against the pass, which is what NU will be good at this year. And Nebraska is breaking in a new quarterback and a new offensive line. So why not NU? Of course, the Wildcats shouldn't be favored to win the division, but doing so is more attainable than people think.
I think there are several different ways Northwestern can achieve a successful season in 2014. The first option is to win eight regular season games. Sure, the 'Cats only got 5 W's last season, but they were the victim of some bad bounces and lost four one-possession games. Now, NU returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense. The schedule softens up a bit with the addition of Purdue and Penn State too. Eight wins would slightly exceed expectations but is still a very realistic goal. If NU can't quite get to eight victories, then winning a bowl game would still make the season a success. It's always easier to look back on the season if it ended on a W. And after not even reaching the postseason in 2013, morale is down and winning a bowl seems like a much bigger accomplishment than it did last September. Northwestern wins eight games or a bowl, or does both, and the season is a success.
To complete a successful season, the Northwestern football team must win at least eight games. Success is often difficult to define, but for this team, success means winning the games it should win and maximizing potential. I count seven should-wins on the schedule: Cal, Northern Illinois, Western Illinois, at Minnesota, at Purdue, Illinois and either Nebraska or Michigan. Whether the ‘Cats get an eighth victory in the regular season or in a bowl game matters little to me. I’ll even go as far as to state that anything short of an 8-5 season should be deemed a failure. While that may sound harsh, it isn’t. The Cats not only avoid Ohio State and Michigan State, but they will also have: a deeper defense, a healthy Venric Mark and certainly better fortune from the football gods.
The combination of last season—a disappointing 5-7 that included a seven-game losing streak following one of the most hyped starts in Northwestern football history—and this offseason—the controversy surrounding the players’ petition to unionize—sets Northwestern up for an interesting 2014 season, putting the program under a national microscope no team has seen before. Considering the events of the offseason, Pat Fitzgerald will have to navigate his squad into uncharted territory, while also facing stiff competition both in and out of conference. A realistic measure of Northwestern’s success will be winning a bowl game. It would show the program’s ability to move through a contentious time, filled with adversity and make it through a season to accomplish a goal based on performance. Whether they just make a bowl with six wins or, as Siemian suggested, they make it to the Rose Bowl, winning the final game of the year will be a strong show of success for Northwestern, capping off 2014 on a team-oriented positive note, while it started on such a controversial and divisive one.
Any answer to this question can be encompassed by one statement: Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats must show that 2013 was an aberration. For years, this team had been achieving more than what was expected of them, and with every successful season under Fitz, the program has proved that being competitive in the Big Ten has become the rule rather than the exception to the rule. Now, the top priority this season is to prove that last year in fact was that exception to the rule.
So what would prove that? If you want a number, I’ll say eight regular season wins (I don’t care about a potential bowl). But more important is how NU gets those wins. I need to see this team go back to comfortably beating the likes of Illinois and Purdue, and then at least being competitive, both at home and on the road, with everybody it plays. The Wildcats need to show that they’ve shed the underdog label for good, and they need to reaffirm their status as a Big Ten contender. With the West division wide open, if this team isn’t being talked about in October and November as one that could get to Indy, I don’t think 2014 will be considered successful.