About six weeks ago, our staff debated what would make Northwestern's football season successful. The answers varied, but several responses were plain and simple: a bowl victory. Despite the two early losses, that goal remains attainable.
Traditionally FBS teams need a winning record to gain bowl eligibility. Changes made within the last several years have altered the rules however. Now, if there are not enough bowl eligible teams, open spots can be filled by 6-7 teams who played in a conference championship, FCS teams in the final year of their FBS transition process, or 5-7 teams in order of their Academic Progress Rate (APR) score.
Of course, the latter is the scenario that would most likely apply to Northwestern. The Wildcats' APR scores under Pat Fitzgerald, which you can check here, have been phenomenal. NU's score of 991 ranked 6th in the country in 2012-13, and that was a drop from 996 a year prior.
Becoming bowl eligible through the APR score is a realistic possibility this year considering there are 38 bowl games. But obviously the easy way in would be to just get the six required wins.
If Northwestern is to win five or six games or even more than that, changes have to be made. We all saw how ugly the first two losses were. Even Fitz himself called the team an "embarassment." They can throw the idea of the postseason out the window if they aren't going to adjust.
The coaching and gameplan were dreadful against Cal. They lacked execution, particularly on offense, against NIU. The punt return unit is abysmal. Everything is a mess. Luckily for Northwestern, they have two weeks to get their game together, and even after the break, they play Western Illinois. There's plenty of time for adjustments.
Firstly, the offense needs to return to the natural spread. Northwestern has been far from successful running the football in this ground-and-pound style. The 'Cats are averaging 2.5 yards per rush so far this season. Spreading the field will open up room to run and eliminate the one-and-ones NU simply won't win on a consistent against Big Ten teams.
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern has actually looked pretty good. After making some adjustments, the defense held Cal to seven points in the second half. Then, they shut out Northern Illinois in the first half. The secondary has been the only glaring weak spot, and their coverage is still decent. If the offense can hold onto the ball a bit longer and the defense puts two halves together, opponents are not going to keep lighting up the scoreboard.
Special teams has their work cut out for them. As mentioned earlier, Northwestern has been horrible on punt returns and not great in coverage either, which is killing them on field position. Their kick return team isn't much better either, as Miles Shuler has struggled to show the big play capability NU fans hoped to see out of him. Chris Gradone made significant strides in week two though, and if the return unit can at least field some punts, special teams won't be the deadweight holding this team back anymore.
There are improvements to be made, but it's nothing this team isn't capable of. As we've said before, Fitzgerald only brings in more talented players every year.
Also, Northwestern's remaining schedule is not that tough. The Big Ten, in particular the west division, is pretty bad. That was more than evident this past weekend. Northwestern should win against Western Illinois, Purdue and Illinois. After some adjustments, competing with, and possibly defeating, Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan is definitely within reason. There is no team on the schedule that Northwestern can not beat.
If Northwestern makes the necessary changes, I think they make a bowl game two or three times out of ten. The odds are not on their side, but it's better than you'd than expect after NU's first two losses.
Now tell us what you think... what are Northwestern's chances of making a bowl game?