Northwestern has now gone two straight years without making a bowl game, and with that in mind, the national media isn't very high on the Wildcats' chances to return to the postseason this year. ESPN released its 2015-16 bowl projections this week and neither Brett McMurphy nor Mark Schlabach have NU projected to go to a bowl game this year.
Going off the F/+ ratings and injury luck, NU was probably good enough to be a bowl team the last two years — particularly in 2013 — if more had gone the Wildcats' way. Statistics would say that, eventually, the Wildcats' luck should return, if not to the insanely lucky levels of the early Pat Fitzgerald tenure. And by any measure, NU should be more talented in 2015, with a 4-star-filled backfield full of players that had offers from Penn State, Texas, Stanford, UCLA and others.
But what if NU doesn't get back to a bowl? Because despite the increase in talent, there's a lot working against NU this year. The most obvious issue is that the Wildcats have a distinct possibility of opening the season up 1-2, with early games against Stanford (at home) and Duke (on the road). The conference schedule is difficult in its own right: vs. Minnesota, at Michigan, vs. Iowa, at Nebraska, vs. Penn State, vs. Purdue, at Wisconsin, at Illinois. It's entirely possible that NU won't reach 4-4 in conference play, which means they won't go bowling if they can't beat Stanford or Duke with a very young team.
If that happens, it will be the first time since the 1990s that the Wildcats will have missed a bowl game for three straight years, and it begs the question, what happens then?
One would have to presume that there would be some staff changes if NU misses the postseason once again, but what's more intriguing is how the direction of the program is evaluated. Because while there is certainly pressure for the Wildcats to win right now, this is really a rebuilding year for the future. The Wildcats' star recruits of the past few years are finally seeing the field, and in all likelihood, young, promising players like quarterback Clayton Thorson, running backs Auston Anderson and Justin Jackson, linebacker Anthony Walker, superback Garrett Dickerson, tackles Blake Hance and Tommy Doles and defensive end Xavier Washington, among others, are only going to get better.
This is the conundrum for Pat Fitzgerald, his staff and for Jim Phillips, who ultimately has to judge the direction of the program every year. Yes, things look like they're going to get better, and unless you're a luddite who distrusts the math supporting recruiting ratings, it's clear that there is more talent in this program than ever. This group should eventually be back in a bowl game — and given the talent, probably a pretty good one — unless, like 2013, everything possible goes wrong.
In all likelihood, this is not that year, and really, 2015 is an inconveniently timed rebuilding year. If Fitzgerald gets this team to 6-6, he will have time to build around his best recruiting classes ever for the next couple years. But if he doesn't, then NU fans and the administration will have an interesting decision: support a staff that has the tools to be successful in the future, or call for changes after three straight bad seasons.
It's unfair, but after two straight underwhelming seasons, it will be the underlying conversation throughout the 2015 season.