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Take two: Has Northwestern 'slipped'?

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A look at the program's current standing and an assessment of the assertion that NU has 'slipped'.

USA TODAY Sports

Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote about Northwestern on Sunday in his Misery Index column, which each week seeks to highlight the 10 most emotionally distraught fan bases in college football. After a 31-24 loss to Cal Northwestern checked in at No. 8. Here's part of Wolken's blurb on the Wildcats:

"The theme from Northwestern this summer was that the program had never been more united on the heels of a disappointing 2013 and an offseason that brought plenty of off-field drama whether it was the unionization attempt or losing talented running back Venric Mark to a suspension and then transfer. But at some point Saturday during a 31-24 home loss to California, realization for Northwestern fans had to set in. The program has slipped. It's hard to pinpoint how or why, but it really looked for a while like Pat Fitzgerald's run of success was built to last."

Which got us thinking: Is Wolken right? Has Northwestern slipped? Here are our thoughts and, as always, we'd like to hear yours in the comment section.

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In college football, unexpected results compel fans to think long and hard about their favorite teams. Whether it's an exhilarating win or a crushing loss, if the final score isn't what most predicted, than a reevaluation is in order. If team X is better/worse than we initially suspected, why didn't we see this coming? Sometimes there is a simple explanation for a question like this - a couple of players perform above/below what they're believed to be capable of, a string of turnover luck/misfortune, a new scheme or schematic wrinkle confounds/fails miserably against the opposition - but sometimes there isn't.

How does one explain what's happened to Northwestern since New Year's Day 2013? On that day, as most readers of this site remember, the Wildcats beat Mississippi State, a big, bad bully from the Ess Eee Cee, 34-20. It was a time for positive thoughts, enthusiasm. I was not alone in my optimism about what lay in store for Northwestern (The title of my column from Jacksonville that day was "Gator Bowl win is only the beginning for Northwestern"). It did not seem that the Wildcats had peaked. Far from it: It felt like they had achieved some sort of breakthrough, like they had taken a meaningful step forward.

Fast forward nearly two years later, and the vibe around the program has changed. Northwestern slogged through a 5-7 season in 2013, and lost to a bad Cal team that went 1-11 a year ago to open 2014. The long-running theme that the Wildcats are "rising" or "up and coming" under Pat Fitzgerald now seems tenuous at best. The most charitable interpretation of Northwestern's trajectory is that everything's alright and the Wildcats have merely endured a minor setback. But what if the program is plateauing - stuck on a treadmill like an NBA team that's not good enough to make the playoffs but doesn't suck or tank hard enough to earn a high lottery pick.

The harshest, and perhaps most realistic, perception is that Northwestern has dipped, or is slipping. That's the conclusion Mr. Wolken reached, even while conceding "It's hard to pinpoint how or why." Is he right? Can we know for sure? Is it even fair to ask? Granted, there seems to be less confidence from fans and media that Northwestern is riding an upward curve, like so many (including myself) believed it was after that 10-win season. But at the same time, stating that the program has regressed, on the basis of a downturn in win-loss percentage over a short stretch, is reductive. There are mitigating factors, reasons to explain why Northwestern may have fallen off the pace.

The Wildcats were dogged by injuries (most notably to their two best and most important players) and had awful luck last season. They also played a much tougher schedule than they did in 2012. Moving ahead to this season (yes, past the union stuff), it's hard to defend Northwestern or its coaches for not beating Cal. The Wildcats should have won that game. They looked unprepared, and they paid for it. So here we are. Northwestern is 0-1, and at risk of falling to 0-2 with a capable Northern Illinois team visiting Evanston this weekend, and now that Gator Bowl win feels like a distant memory. Do you even remember this photo?

I realize the above paragraph doesn't come close to touching on every relevant detail - truly assessing the state of Northwestern's program would require a much longer, and more detailed analysis. But the point is I don't think the picture is as clear as some seem to believe. Has Northwestern slipped? Probably. I don't know. The rest of this season should serve as a good gauge. If the Wildcats make progress after last year's 5-7 disaster, then maybe they're not slipping, and we'll remember 2013 as a hiccup. If they sink further, then Wolken's probably right, and 2013 could stand as the beginning of a multi-year nosedive.

- Chris Johnson

For me, the answer to the question of "has Northwestern slipped" depends heavily on your perception of this program’s status in the months following the Gator Bowl triumph. As Chris discussed, at that time, the general feeling was that Fitzgerald had NU trending upwards, and it was hard to disagree.

But in hindsight, I think we have to admit that that feeling may have been slightly misguided. As good of a year as 2012 was for Northwestern football, we now have the benefit of context when assessing it, and the reality is, that 10-3 is sandwiched between a 6-7 and a 5-7. This isn’t to say that fans shouldn’t have been so optimistic throughout the 2013 offseason; but it is to say that it’s fine to look back and realize that the optimism should’ve been a bit more guarded. And it's probably necessary to concede that maybe the program never reached the level that many thought it had.

So I look at the question of "has NU slipped" through that lens. I’m not sure they’ve slipped as much as they’ve stagnated. There’s no question that since Fitz took over, there’s been a gradual upward trend, but I’m not sure the Wildcats ever reached that next level. They always had and have relatively average Big Ten talent, and they had and have what I think has proven to be an average Big Ten coaching staff.

Therefore, I’m going to reject the idea that they’ve "slipped, and it’s all about resisting the temptation to overreact. To say NU has slipped means one of two things. It either means the program reached a point where it was knocking on the door of the upper tier of the Big Ten – which I believe would’ve been an overreaction to 2012 – and that it has regressed to pre-2012 levels; or it means the program never reached that point, and has now slumped back towards the lower tier of the conference – which I believe is a colossal overreaction to the loss to Cal.

We’ve generally accepted that last year was somewhat fluky. And I think we also need to accept that 2012 was fluky, if we haven’t already done so. So let’s just wait until at least mid-October of 2014 until we pass judgment on this Northwestern program and its current state.

-- Henry Bushnell