I'm depressed. About Northwestern football. And in all likelihood, so are you.
After a merciless 40-10 beatdown at the hands of a rival, how could you not be? The Wildcats, for a second year in a row on homecoming, treated their fans to a repulsive display of football Saturday. Last year, Northwestern gained a grand total of 30 yards on offense in a brutal second half against Nebraska. This year, NU committed comical turnovers, and was physically overwhelmed while getting outscored 24-0 after the break versus Iowa.
So I'm depressed. About Northwestern football. And here's the thing: I don't even root for the team. For the most part, as journalists, we stay objective. Or at least we try. It's always going to be more fun when the team is winning, of course, but I do not feel emotionally invested in the outcome of Northwestern's games.
However, it was impossible to not to get swept up in the excitement of the 5-0 start. There was a certain thrill after the Minnesota game, a combination of past success and future promise, that only select fan bases get to feel. I could sense that Northwestern fans were feeling it. The national spotlight was growing on this team.
After the 27-0 win over Minnesota, with Northwestern rolling and ranked No. 13 in the nation, our Zach Pereles wrote the following about Northwestern fandom:
In this day and age, people can't help but be skeptical. They look at Northwestern's offensive S&P+. They look at the last hot start Northwestern had (4-0 in 2013, we know how that season ended). They look at the rest of the Northwestern's depressing offensive advanced stats and the tradition Northwestern has of awful Octobers.
They even look at the projections that have Northwestern in the College Football Playoff or the Rose Bowl and get their hopes way back up again before realizing that NU is still a huge long-shot for either of those scenarios. So go ahead and do that. After all, that's what stats are for, right?
Soak it in.
And then, get rid of it. Soak up the now. The 5-0. The "Holy sh*t your school's football team is No. 13 in the country ahead of Ole Miss, Notre Dame, USC and Michigan." The fact that the school you support, the smallest, most academically-prestigious school in its conference, has a resume that, if translated into the job world, could get you a job anywhere.
Five weeks into this season, Northwestern is one of eight 5-0 teams. It doesn't get much better than that. While you inevitably think about the future and worry about that dreaded, seemingly unavoidable Northwestern collapse, live in the present. At this point, no one can predict what will happen in the next seven weeks. The wheels could completely fall off. The team could run all the way to the national championship. The possibilities really are endless, which is what makes college football -- or any sport really -- so great but so stressful at the same time.
But right now, the Northwestern Wildcats -- YOUR Northwestern Wildcats -- are playing great football. And great football is fun. So have fun with it. You never know when this team could be as good or as fun as this one is right now.
The premise of Pereles' article was this: Northwestern might be really good; Northwestern might be not that good after all; rather than worry about which was the case, just savor the run. Enjoy the process.
But realistically, was anybody able to do that? Probably not. It was impossible to not look ahead. No postseason thought was unrealistic. There was a non-zero chance that Northwestern could make the College Football Playoff. Man, that's insane to think about now.
In hindsight though, it looks foolish. In two weeks, we've gone from sneakily, optimistically talking about the College Football Playoff, to matter-of-factly discussing the Big Ten West race, to... this.
What's this? Nothing. It's boredom. It's irrelevancy. Northwestern no longer has a shot at that Big Ten West crown. It would take an epic Iowa collapse — three losses in games against Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska.
And therefore does Northwestern even have anything meaningful to play for? Sure, bowl eligibility still hangs in the balance. But Northwestern isn't going to lose seven straight. They'll go to a bowl. They'll get the extra practices. But the result of that bowl will be largely meaningless. And at this point, is there really any difference between 7-5 and 9-3? I'm not really sure there is.
In a weird way, viewed through the scope of preseason expectations, Northwestern's season is almost already a success. Take the emotion out of the equation, and things are a bit more rosy. A sixth win and a bowl bid would be an improvement on last year. Fitzgerald and the program would certainly sell it as such. And it really wouldn't be a disaster.
But it also wouldn't conceal the disappointment. And it doesn't mitigate the torture of the same old story seemingly and inevitably repeating itself. It's a story with which Northwestern fans have become all too familiar in recent years. The Wildcats give fans hope. In the subsequent weeks, it is snatched away. It happened after Ohio State in 2013. It happened after Wisconsin last year. It has happened after Minnesota this year.
There's not really an intelligent point to be made here. Other articles on our site will look at the specific issues that have plagued Northwestern, the shortcomings that might explain the trend.
This is just to rue another episode of disappointment. Maybe the Wildcats will bounce back this weekend. Maybe they won't. But as Northwestern's Saturday opponents, still undefeated, stride forward as living proof of what we thought Northwestern could be, will NU fans really structure their Saturday emotionally around the game at Nebraska?
Despite the lingering possibility of 10 wins, and a bowl berth still up in the air, the Wildcats' season is more or less over. It's devoid of much interest. And contrasted with what this fan base felt two weeks ago, that's stunningly depressing.