Northwestern is 6-14 since College GameDay came rolling into Evanston for Northwestern vs. Ohio State two seasons ago. It's amazing how much air has been let out of Northwestern's balloon ever since. And as frustrating as it may be, here's the deal: This year's offense is young and, thus, will probably struggle. And that means the team as a whole could too.
But Northwestern is still well positioned for the future, as hard as it may be to remain patient.
Let's play a little game and put ourselves in a vacuum.
There's this team that is going to have a starting quarterback that is going to have no more than one career start, and in all likelihood will probably have less than one career pass attempt. Its best wide receiver is coming off of a serious knee injury, its leading returning wideout from last season caught just 24 balls for 318 yards, its best healthy pass catcher is a tight end, and its top three running backs are all underclassmen. Its offensive line is shuffling around too.
But the players on that side of the ball, by every metric we have, have all kinds of talent. There are multiple four-star quarterbacks, one running back with offers from Texas, Baylor and Arizona and another with offers from Arizona State, Cal, and a large handful of Big Ten teams. There's a tight end with Alabama and Florida State offers. None of those guys are upperclassmen yet.
Even while the defense is set to lose half its starters after this season, the backups set to take over all have experience and have recruiting profiles every bit as exciting as their teammates on the offensive side.
When you look at it that way, Northwestern actually is in a decent place.
Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, Austin Anderson, Garrett Dickerson, and Solomon Vault are all young, exciting players who figure to play a huge role in a bright Northwestern future. Defensively, Parrker Westphal, Kyle Queiro, Marcus McShepard, Keith Watkins, Xavier Washington and Nate Hall have me every bit as excited — not to mention Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike, who will already have major roles this year.
The only problem is that there's probably another year of growth that's necessary before this team crawls out of the doldrums of 5-7 or 6-6 seasons. Northwestern fans are going to have to find a way to stay sane as the team rebuilds.
And make no mistake, this is a rebuilding year for the offense, and no matter how good the defense is (I think it may be the best unit Fitzgerald has had at Northwestern), the offense quite probably just won't score enough points for this team to finish in the top half of the Big Ten.
It's not Fitzgerald's spin, it's not white noise, it's not an excuse. It's just what's happening. NU is replacing its starting quarterback, its two starting wideouts from last season, and three offensive linemen with 101 career starts between them. You don't shrug that off and turn everything around unless you're Alabama or something, and Northwestern ain't that.
I don't think it makes a whole heap of sense to judge the coaching staff by what this 2015 Northwestern squad puts together, which, for the growing group of discontented Northwestern fans, probably isn't going to go over exceedingly well. To squeeze seven wins out of this team would be a phenomenal coaching job. The offensive experience just isn't there yet.
There will be a time when Northwestern runs out of tarmac to keep kicking the can. It's getting close, there's no doubt about it. Three years without a postseason appearance is a death knell for most coaches, especially those who have hit a high of a 10-win season. But the cream that should be rising to the top in the next few seasons could, and probably should, buy some more time.