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Does Northwestern need a win over Wisconsin to re-legitimize itself?

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Walker scooped up the loose ball off a Mitch Leidner fumble, ran 13 yards for a touchdown and held the ball over his head in the end zone, celebrating perfection.

This was 47 days ago. And a lot—pretty much everything—was going right for Northwestern:

  • The Wildcats were about to wrap up a 27-0 drubbing of formerly 3-1 Minnesota—a team that had lost only narrowly to then-No. 2 TCU—in a matchup that favored Northwestern by just 3.5 points.

  • They dominated Stanford and Duke, two nationally-respected teams, allowing just 16 total points to the two teams. Stanford was 4-0 with a 20 point-per-game margin of victory since its loss to Northwestern. That included a win over then-No. 6 USC. So the Stanford win was looking monumental.

  • Northwestern boasted the best scoring defense in the nation, giving up just 7 points per game.

  • The media hype was widespread. Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde has Northwestern in the College Football Playoff as the No. 2 team in the country and SB Nation's Jason Kirk also had the Wildcats in the playoff. The national media was starting to consider Northwestern a legit threat.

Case in point: the 5-0 Wildcats, given the caliber of their opponents, were enjoying the program's best start to a season since perhaps the 1995-96 Rose Bowl season, but at least since 2000. The Week 6 game against Michigan was the subject of national discussion, and was considered the biggest game ever on the Big Ten Network. Northwestern was legit. And everyone knew it.

Or at least they thought they knew it.

All it took was a 38-0 dismantling in the Big House and a 40-10 homecoming loss to Iowa to virtually erase it all. And although the Wildcats have gotten back to winning ways since, they haven't exactly been impressive in doing so.

So riding a three-game win streak heading into Madison, does Northwestern—well-respected just a few weeks ago—need to win this weekend to re-legitimize itself?

Yes and no. First, let's look at what's concretely at stake.

If Northwestern wins out and finishes with a 10-2 record, with a 10-win record and wins over Stanford, at Duke, Penn State and potentially at Wisconsin, the Wildcats have a legitimate shot at making a New Year's Six bowl. Moving down two spots to No. 20 in this week's rankings was a blow to Northwestern's chances, making a top-11 appearance tougher. So it's not surefire, but making a New Year's Six Bowl is attainable with two wins and some help.

Playing in one of these bowls—Peach, Fiesta, Rose or Sugar—would be the biggest step forward yet for Pat Fitzgerald's program, and a win at Wisconsin would be paramount in getting there. You can see each scenario in greater detail here, but for now I'll leave you with this: a win at Wisconsin—and a subsequent win at Soldier Field against Illinois—puts the Wildcats in a possible New Year's Six Scenario. They would need assistance, and it's something of a longshot, but a berth, which is very much realistic, would yield colossal benefits for the program.

More abstractly, beating the Badgers would present allow Northwestern to sneak back into the national discussion. Since Fitzgerald took over in 2006, the Wildcats have won 10 games just once—in 2012—the same season of their only bowl win since 1948. And while national perception seems like a solely conceptual question, it leads to much more tangible results.

With only two double-digit win seasons in the last 20 years and only one bowl victory to accompany that, Northwestern hasn't been the most attractive destination for top recruits. Sure, a top-tier academic offering mixed with a prime location just outside of Chicago undoubtedly makes Northwestern an enticing place. But for top-tier four- and five-star recruits with NFL ambitions, Evanston simply hasn't been the best destination—which makes sense.

Here are the relative Big Ten rankings of Northwestern's last five recruiting classes, according to 247 Sports, plus this year's class, which is still in the process of being built:

Year

Big Ten class rank

2011

13

2012

12

2013

12

2014

7

2015

10

2016

10

Furthermore, a look back at Rivals' class rankings between 2006 (when Fitzgerald took over as head coach) and 2011 shows an average class ranking of 12 (out of 14; Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska are included in the rankings despite not being part of the Big Ten in those years). Fitzgerald never fielded a recruiting class better than 11th best in the Big Ten in those years. And with that average hovering towards the bottom, it's no surprise Northwestern hasn't been able to cement itself in the top half of the conference.

The above numbers manifest themselves on the football field too. It's apparent in matchups against the likes of Michigan that Northwestern simply doesn't field the same caliber of athlete as top Big Ten schools.

But what the above table shows is the effect of an outlier season. The 10-win season in 2012 didn't just have an effect on the 2014 class (recruiting results often follow two years behind on field success), it carried over into the 2015 class as well. Fitzgerald, a great recruiter, did an outstanding job of using the 10-win season to sell the upward trajectory of the program.

What the media deems "good" wins and "bad" losses can often change the course of a program in terms of reputation and recruiting, because the perception of a single team has trickle-down effects.

Yes, recruiting players to Evanston will always be an uphill battle when competing against schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, but Fitzgerald would greatly benefit from the national exposure of a top-tier bowl game (even the less-prestigious Outback, Citrus and Holiday bowls) and another 10-win season. It would allow him to bring more talent into his program, just as he was able to do in the wake of the Gator Bowl victory.

But that's only possible with a win in Madison. This Saturday's contest has everything you want in a big game: Madison is one of the toughest places to play in the country—the Badgers have lost just four times at home this decade, and Northwestern hasn't won there in 15 years. The Badgers boast the nation's top scoring defense, allowing just 12.3 points per game. Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) lacks an impressive win, but its two losses are to No. 2 Alabama and No. 5 Iowa. Not bad. Plus, its top-five run defense will pose major problems for the legs of not only the resurgent Justin Jackson but also of Clayton Thorson.

Now, I'm not saying Northwestern absolutely needs to beat Wisconsin to achieve all this, but a win at Camp Randall would make a massive national statement and put the program in a position to break through, or at the very least take another big positive step. The question of re-legitimizing a program with one win seems extreme to me. A win in Madison wouldn't necessarily do that—it would just be symbolic of a positive shift for Northwestern football.

But it might re-legitimize this year's team. Heading into this matchup, the Wildcats appear to be at a crossroads. They could be much better than we think. They could be far worse than we think. With a win on Saturday and again next weekend, the Wildcats could be headed as high as the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl on New Year's Day. But a loss at Camp Randall could send them spiraling in the direction of the Pinstripe Bowl or Foster Farms Bowl.

College football is a fickle sport. What the media deems "good" wins and "bad" losses can often change the course of a program in terms of reputation and recruiting, because the perception of a single team has trickle-down effects. Certainly, the future and destiny of Northwestern football doesn't solely depend on Saturday's game—that would be a tad melodramatic—but the result of Saturday's game will go a long way to determining how this 2015 Northwestern team is viewed.