After a pair of ugly losses to start the season, Northwestern finds itself in a strange situation. NU's gradual ascension to respectability under Pat Fitzgerald has hit a brick wall, and the on-the-field woes have hurt the 'Cats in recruiting.
In late July, twin four-star recruits Andrew and David Dowell de-committed from Northwestern, and they were just two of six prep stars who have de-committed from NU in the last ten months. Four star receiver Dareian Watkins, three-star linebacker Noah Westerfield, three-star safety Jordan Thomas and three-star linebacker Hamilton Anoa'i all switched schools in the months following the Wildcats' disastrous 2013 season.
So far, 2014 hasn't looked any better. With the losses to Cal and Northern Illinois, Northwestern fell to 1-9 in its last 10 contests, and they remained winless at home in nearly a year. Obviously, NU's catastrophe in conference play last season could have turned recruits away. Six guys don't just re-open their recruitment out of nowhere.
Now, the question becomes: will there be more de-commits? It's certainly possible. We don't know of any recruits who are considering de-committing, but the trends say that it could happen.
All of Northwestern's de-commits from last season waited until at least late November to start looking at other schools, so maybe we won't see anything during the season. They are going to let the games play out and see how Northwestern fares. Even with how sloppy the first couple games were, the 'Cats still have the talent to compete in the Big Ten and keep this season from turning into a complete catastrophe.
If the season continues on its current trajectory, however, the de-commits are much more likely. Many recruits don't look at Northwestern the same way most people do.
If you're a Northwestern commit, it has to hurt watching the team struggle so much. For them, it's essentially looking at their future. Imagine how different it must have been for recruits watching NU win the Gator Bowl two seasons ago. As much as the Gator Bowl helped recruiting, could the losing negate it all together? We don't know for sure, but it certainly hasn't helped in the last 10 months.
Pat Fitzgerald's strict recruiting policy doesn't help NU either. If any of Northwestern's commits start checking out other schools, Fitz immediately voids their commitment, no exceptions. There is no such thing as a soft commit in his mind. You're either a Northwestern Wildcat or you're not. So if the 'Cats keep losing and commits so much as take a look at another destination, they won't ever be playing for NU.
Outside that policy, it's hard to knock Pat Fitzgerald's recruiting profile. In Randy Walker's final three years in Evanston, Northwestern's recruiting classes only once ranked in the nation's top 75, based on rankings from 247sports. The recruiting classes took a turn for the better under Fitz, who put together classes in the nation's top 55 in each of the last three years. Even after the Dowell de-commitments, Northwestern's 2015 class is still 37th in the country on 247sports.
To maintain the recruiting upswing, Northwestern has to perform on the field. Talented recruits won't continue to choose NU, or stay with NU, if the 'Cats play like they have in their last ten outings. That kind of performance will make it near impossible for Fitz to ever match his 2015 class ranking.
We don't know if more de-commits are coming, but undoubtedly, Northwestern's play this season will affect the program's recruiting and future.