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Why Northwestern-Duke will be season-defining for NU

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Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks in college football can feel like an eternity. For all the stock put into preseason expectations, for all the firm belief in some teams and lack thereof in others, it's amazing how little has to happen for all those preconceptions to fall by the wayside. One performance can change everything. It can cause adjustments of expectations, for better or worse. It can spawn dreams or kill them.

It's tough to find a better example of this concept in 2015 than the Northwestern Wildcats. Prior to the season, expectations were modest. A 7-5 record was considered an optimistic prediction. After two-straight five-win seasons, a sixth win and a bowl game seemed to be a reasonable goal. It was by no means a certainty.

Prior to the season, there also seemed to be one date on the schedule that stood out — one that would provide a revealing assessment of the Wildcats' ability to meet those preseason expectations. Back in August, there was some consensus that NU's most important game was the one that is now two days away — the Duke game. We talked about it at length, and many fans had circled Saturday's game as the one that would map out the course of Northwestern's season.

After two weeks, the perception of Northwestern has changed. Preseason expectations have been adjusted. Bigger dreams have been spawned.

But the perception of the Duke game has not. It is still the season-defining contest. It is still the measuring stick. It will still map out the season's course. However, the reasoning is different.

A month ago, the thought process went like this: Northwestern would lose to Stanford, but that wouldn't be too much of an indictment of NU because Stanford was out of the Wildcats' league. Stanford was at a level that was outside the range of possible levels for Northwestern. Then NU would blow out Eastern Illinois, but again, that wouldn't tell us too much. Similarly, the Wildcats were out of EIU's league — literally and figuratively.

In three hours on college football's first Saturday, the first step of that thought process was thrown out of whack. Northwestern beat Stanford, and did so somewhat convincingly. Suddenly, six wins seemed like the absolute low end of that range of outcomes. The recalibrated high end would send Northwestern to Indianapolis.

But here's the thing: That range is unchanged. The point around which that range is centered has shifted — in a positive direction, probably by one or two wins — but it remains just as wide. Basically, before the season, anywhere from four wins — on the very, very low end — to eight — on the very, very high end — could be foreseen. And now, six wins would be low and 10 would be high. The range is still the same.

And thus, the Duke game remains as important as ever. It remains a true test, an uninhibited examination of this Northwestern team. It will be telling.

How much of NU's season-opening win was due to Stanford's shortcomings? How much of it was due to Northwestern's strengths? Is Northwestern's defense going to be truly dominant? Or were these first two performances a flash in the pan? Will the unit remain inconsistent like it was a year ago?

On the offensive side of the ball, how big of a load can Clayton Thorson carry? Is the offensive line any better than it was a year ago?

Those questions will all be answered on Saturday. Northwestern's trip to Durham as a road underdog will be the perfect barometer. The legitimacy of the win over Stanford will be either confirmed or refuted.

Adding to the value of this impending inspection are the makeup and philosophy of Duke relative to Northwestern's earlier opponent. Against Stanford, the Wildcats showed they could handle physicality. They showed they were big enough and tough enough to stand up to bigger and, on paper, better players. They won a low-scoring, ground-game-centric, grind-it-out defensive battle against a team that is built to win games in exactly that style.

In football terms, Duke is the anti-Stanford. The Blue Devils will pose entirely different problems to Northwestern. This is a team built on speed, both physically and philosophically, and one that Pat Fitzgerald has said is faster than Stanford. Duke's offense moves fast between plays and during them. It is a true, untempered spread with a dual-threat quarterback, which contrasts Stanford's pro-style approach and signal-caller. And coach David Cutcliffe is the anti-David Shaw when it comes to aggressiveness.

So this isn't just about providing a convincing argument. It's also an opportunity to provide one that's perfectly complementary to the first.

A loss Saturday might suggest that those preseason expectations were the realistic ones. More than anything though, it would beg for a third datapoint, and would shift the importance along to the Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

But a win over Duke would prove that Northwestern's triumph over Stanford wasn't just about matchups or scheme. It would prove that this team is soundly built to compete with any type of opponent; and thus, perhaps, to compete for a Big Ten West crown.