Prior to the start of any college football season, expectations for each of the 129 FBS teams can be expressed by a single number: That team's win total over/under. Over the summer, leading Las Vegas sportsbooks give each team a number, on which bettors can bet. If the number for a given team is, say, 7, and a fan thinks that team will win 8 games, the over is the play. If the team ends up at 8-4 or better, it's a winning bet. If the team wins 6 games or fewer, it's a losing one. If the team were to finish with 7 wins, equal to Vegas's number, the bet would be a push (no significant money lost or won).
Climbing in the polls
Climbing in the polls
Back in August, that number for Northwestern was either 6 or 6.5, depending on where you looked. When you factor in money lines, it was somewhere in between. So essentially, the regular season win expectation for NU was around 6.25.
After three weeks, for many, that expectation has changed. Northwestern is 3-0, with two wins over Power Five schools, and currently sits at No. 17 in the AP Poll. Surely the expectation now exceeds 6.5.
Two factors may have bumped that number up. One is the direct effect: Northwestern has won games that it could have potentially lost. The other is the indirect effect: Northwestern's performances in those wins might lead us to believe that the Wildcats' chances to win the remaining games on their schedule are greater than we originally thought.
Anyway, the number has almost undoubtedly risen. But by how much? Here's what our staff thinks:
Henry Bushnell: When Josh Rosenblat asked me this question on our way out of Wallace Wade Stadium yesterday, my initial reaction was to set the over/under at 8. But I realized that was definitely too low. The Wildcats will, in all likelihood, already have 4 wins heading into conference play, meaning even just a 5-3 conference record would put them at 9 wins. That caught me off guard. I'm not ready to set the over/under at 9 though. The offense is really worrying. So I'll say 8.5.
Josh Rosenblat: Northwestern is not a complete football team. And, by season's end, I still don't think it will be one. The offense lags so far behind the defense and special teams in its competence that it will undoubtedly hold Northwestern back from guaranteeing nine wins. For that reason, the over/under should be at 8, with a push as the most likely outcome.
Zach Pereles: Until I can trust Clayton Thorson to at least be a serviceable quarterback, I can't really go that high on this year's win total. Saturday, he was a liability. I can't see this team beating the likes of Minnesota, Michigan and Nebraska until Thorson shows some major improvement. This defense is outstanding, and the presumed 4-0 start should set the Wildcats on the path to a bowl game, but I'm not sold on this team as a whole. A 3-5 conference record is a legitimate possibility. It's still so early, too. How good is Duke really? They didn't look very good Saturday, and I think Northwestern overachieved in the Stanford win. Hence, I'm setting over/under at 7.
Ian McCafferty: It really is quite amazing how fast Clayton Thorson went from the savior of the Wildcats to perhaps the only thing holding back a potentially great team. People were calling for Zack Oliver halfway through the second quarter, that's how bad it got.
But to be honest, Thorson is the only thing stopping me from saying that this team will win 10 games. The defense is absurdly good, and the special teams has some juice. The only problem is that the offense didn't look shaky Saturday, it looked downright awful. It will improve with time — maybe — and how much it does is what will decide where Northwestern finishes this season. If the offense can put up 17-20 points per game, the defense takes them to 10 wins. If not, I think they settle for 7 or 8 which is still good given the pre-season predictions. I'll meet somewhere in the middle and set the over/under at 8.5.
Game coverage from Durham
Game coverage from Durham
Kevin Dukovic: The question asks what should, not what will be Northwestern's win total. And as it stands right now, today, on Sept. 20, Northwestern should be projected to win at least 9 games. That's right, at least. The Wildcats are a top 25 team in the nation according to both national polls, they have one of the best defenses in the conference, and maybe even the country, and they have a relatively easy schedule. Do I think Northwestern will win 9 games? No. I think 7 or 8 is much more realistic for this team. But do I think NU should be favored to win 6 more games at this moment in time? Absolutely. Over/under: 9 wins.
Josh Burton: While it would be irresponsible to say that Northwestern's remaining schedule is easy, it certainly isn't too difficult, especially if this team is actually as good as it has played so far this season. This week's game against Ball State shouldn't be a huge challenge, while future conference opponents Purdue, Illinois and Penn State, to name a few, have certainly had their struggles. The Wildcats don't play a single ranked team outside of No. 22 Wisconsin the rest of the way. They'll have their letdowns, sure, but those negotiable obstacles shouldn't stop NU from ending the regular season with only a few losses. Over/under: 8.5 wins.
Michael Odom: Anything can happen in conference play, but predicting more than three losses in the final eight weeks would be unwarranted pessimism. No, Northwestern does not have a polished offense. Thorson needs to tone down the gunslinging and take care of the football. But how many of the remaining opponents are good in all three phases? Two? One? None? An elite defense pulls out at least three games by itself in the Big Ten West. Over/under: 8.5 wins.
Zach Wingrove: Looking at the rest of the schedule, I see four games that the Wildcats should win (Ball State, Penn State, Purdue and Illinois), four toss up games (Minnesota, at Michigan, Iowa and at Nebraska) and then one game (Wisconsin) in which a win is a longshot.
Traveling to Michigan and Nebraska is no easy task, even if both teams are having what is considered an "off year". Unless the passing game progresses at a remarkable rate over the next couple of weeks, I don't see the Wildcats being able to win in either of those hostile environments. As for the two future home matchups against Minnesota and Iowa, I don't think it's unreasonable to project Northwestern to win at least one of those two.
The Wildcats' defense has been incredible thus far, and will certainly help to keep future games competitive. but until we see more improvement from the offense I can't go any higher than 8.
Now it's your turn to tell us...