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Northwestern lost to Cal: What does it mean?

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Northwestern lost but let's not overreact.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite things about college football is the way people overreact after the first game of the season. If their favorite team loses, it's time to declare a state of emergency. If it wins, they start making hotel reservations for the national championship game. That's an exaggeration, of course, especially when it comes to middle-of-the-pack teams like Northwestern.

The Wildcats unexpectedly dropped their first game of the 2014 season, and it's easy to understand why, less than a day later, you don't feel too good about what they can accomplish over the next three months. NU was supposed to beat Cal, an ostensibly bad team that went 1-11 last season. Actually, a lot of people (including writers for this site) thought NU would win easily.

When your team loses a game you believed it would win, it throws your preseason record predictions out of whack. If you thought NU would go 9-3 or 8-4 this season, say, now you're probably predicting 5-7 or 4-8. If the Wildcats couldn't hang with a Pac 12 doormat, then how the hell are they going to beat mid and upper-tier Big Ten opponents? It's a fair question to ask, but that viewpoint doesn't account for a few things.

Among them: The NU team we saw yesterday could get better! In fact, we saw it get better during the game; after Cal took a 31-7 lead in the fourth quarter, NU battled back to make it 31-24 before falling short. Also, as Fitz conceded at his postgame news conference, NU wasn't prepared for Cal's two-quarterback system. Jared Goff attempted 34 passes, 30 fewer than he attempted in last season's meeting in Berkley.

The Bears surprised NU with their gameplan and the Wildcats couldn't adjust on the fly in time to salvage a win. There's a chance another one of NU's opponents could unleash some formation or play Fitz and his staff have never seen before, but the Wildcats' D should be better prepared, considering they'll have film from this season to study. Saturday was an example of why opening-week games can be so tricky to predict.

I'm not certain that NU would beat Cal if they played again a few weeks from now, but the Wildcats would at least have the advantage of knowing that the Bears would trot out a running quarterback to complement Goff. That would make a big difference. Which is not to say that this loss can be filed away as a matter of gameplan unfamiliarity. Northwestern didn't play well, and there are very legitimate reasons to be concerned, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

Still, as is the case with most teams, what you see in week 1 probably isn't as bad or as good as that team will be all season. It was a rough start to what was billed as a potential bounceback year for the Wildcats, but it's too early to know what to expect from them. We're only a week in.