There's a strange thing I've noticed in my years following Big Ten football, first a certain team four hours west of Evanston, then the Cats themselves: Northwestern always seems to get the respect it deserves. Heck, NU might even get more credit than it deserves sometimes.
Maybe it's because everyone is so enamored with small, academic schools doing well, or maybe it's the Coach Fitz aura that gets everyone excited about the program. But NU always seems to get the, "respectable, on the rise, dangerous dark horse" label, which is generally what it deserves.
This isn't to say that the Wildcats never exceed their preseason expectations, or that in hindsight, maybe they should have been ranked higher than they were. This just means that most people tend to give NU due credit based on what we know at the beginning of the season.
But this year is different. The common response among fans when I bring this up on Twitter is "I can't believe anything after last year." Some national media members don't even have Northwestern making bowl games (Jerry Palm of CBS and Brett McMurphy of ESPN, two very good writers). Somehow, they looked at this team objectively and decided there's a less-than-50-percent-chance they'll finish with six wins. That seems suspect, but it's not surprising.
Here's what most people know about Northwestern football last season: They finished 5-7 and were an incredible disappointment. That's not wrong, but it's also not the best basis to make a prediction for the following season. Due to a number of outside factors, we know that Northwestern should be a lot better this year, and that any projection that has the Wildcats missing a bowl game once again fails to consider all these factors.
The injury bug won't strike like it did in 2013
Last year, I wrote that Northwestern fans should be encouraged by Michigan State's rebound in 2013 from an injury-ridden 2012. The Spartans had entered the year considered contenders for a Big Ten title, but they lost 9.79 percent of their starts due to injury and fell to 6-6.
It's very statistically unlikely for that to happen, and it was very doubtful it would happen two years in a row, just as it was nearly impossible for NU's incredibly low 1.75 percent of starts lost to continue. Of course, MSU bounced back and won the Big Ten, and it's possible the Wildcats could see a similar boost, considering that at the time of writing (and not much changed), they had lost a whopping 11.39 percent of their starts. That was already a hint that NU could start this season underrated:
With so many players coming back and a likely progression toward the mean in terms of both injuries and in-game luck, NU should have a much better season next year. The preseason prognosticators might not think so if they just glance at the record and the name on the uniforms, but the statistics would disagree, and I've found that statistics are generally smarter than people's brains.
There were even other injuries that doesn't account for, like the fact that Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian played most of the year despite being hobbled by injuries. When Siemian finally got healthy, for the Illinois game, he posted the 10th best passing game in NU history.
Of course, this isn't to say NU is going to make the Rose Bowl just because Michigan State did. But generally, it's safe to assume 2014 won't be as injury-ridden as 2013, because seasons like that are very unlikely to ever happen.
Last year's team was better than its record
What's amazing is that despite the injuries, Northwestern still had a decent team last year. When judging by the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings — which use non-scoring, non-luck calculations to determine how good teams should really be — NU finished 59th, just ahead of Northern Illinois, Penn State, Maryland and Boston College. This wasn't a 5-7 team, even though it wasn't even close to full strength.
The problem is that the Wildcats were terrible in close games. I explain it more in this post, but basically, winning close games has proven over thousands and thousands of games to be random (sorry, but there are no "little things" that winners do). That means teams should theoretically win half of their close games. NU had an incredibly lucky streak of going 20-8 in close games between 2007 and 2010. However, the Wildcats went an equally incredibly unlucky 1-5 in close games last year. So really, this team should've been 7-5 or so.
Considering that NU was without most of its best players and still — if not for being historically unlucky — should have been 7-5 last year, it's pretty inconceivable that people think this team is at 6-6 level. But when record is the determining factor above all else, that's what happens.
The returning personnel and the schedule are really good
Ever since 2011, Northwestern has recruited better and better each year, and we're starting to see that pay off. Since then, every team has been more talented than the year before, and you can make the argument that this NU team is the most talented one ever ... and the one best-suited to make a run in a long time.
The defense has more talent than ever before, particularly in the secondary, which has historically been a weakness for NU. The defensive ends are the strongest unit on the team and all three linebackers have starting experience. The one weakness is at defensive tackle, which has two good starters and some unproven backups that are still more talented and experienced than last year.
Trevor Siemian is finally healthy at quarterback, and there's really no reason to believe he won't be a capable starter, since he's been good when healthy in the past. Plus, he'll finally have a pass-oriented offense catered to his strengths with a proven core of wide receivers — Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Cameron Dickerson — along with new speedster Miles Shuler, who can fill the short, speedy slot receiver role NU has missed since losing Jeremy Ebert. Venric Mark and a whole stable of running backs return, along with the entire starting offensive line and a few quality backups.
Moreover, the schedule sets up nicely. The game at Notre Dame will be tough and Northern Illinois could be tricky, but NU should win the latter and be 3-0 heading into conference play. NU's cross-division opponents are a Penn State team breaking in a new coach and Michigan, which must visit Ryan Field whose best descriptive adjective ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
In the division, an unproven Wisconsin team visits Evanston early in the season, and Nebraska must also make the trip there. Minnesota is a very manageable road game, and while Iowa is a tough place to play, NU has had success there.
This isn't to say NU is, or should, be favored to win the division. That title (rightly) belongs to Wisconsin or Iowa. But when you look at the bigger picture — the injury gap, the luck in close games and the returning personnel — it's tough to see how this looks like a 5-7 or 6-6 team.