If I'd told you before the season that Northwestern would head into its matchup with Ohio State in Columbus with a 4-3 record, you'd have told me that sounds about right. If I then proceeded to tell you how the Wildcats got there and what this team looks like, you wouldn't have been so kind.
Cautious optimism, justified by last year's 10-win season, would have you believe Northwestern would have handled its opening two games. But that was before Western Michigan was 8-0, legit-chance-at-New-Years-Six-Bowl, Western Michigan. That was before Illinois State, a team that has gone 2-5 against FCS teams, went 1-0 in road games against Big Ten teams.
Reasonable expectation, spurred by Michigan State's participation in the College Football Playoff and Iowa's Rose Bowl bid, didn't give Northwestern much of a chance in either of those road games, let alone both. But that was before Michigan State suffered one of the biggest year-after drop-offs in recent college football memory. That was before Iowa lost to a Carson Wentz-less North Dakota St.
Like its opponents, Northwestern doesn't look much like most expected it to, and certainly bears little resemblance to last year's defense-first, defense-second and defense-third team. We knew Justin Jackson would get a heavy workload yet again and that he'd be one of the conference's — if not the country's — best backs. But we had absolutely no idea that Austin Carr would establish himself as the Big Ten's premier receiver and rank in the top 20 nationally in receptions, yards and touchdowns. We thought the defense would be more dominant and the kicking game more consistent, and we didn't foresee Clayton Thorson's putting together a three-game stretch of 730 yards, 9 touchdowns and 1 interception in conference play.
We didn't see this balanced-offense iteration of Northwestern at the beginning of the season, and this current state seemed perhaps even more unlikely after two games. Nevertheless, it's where Northwestern is right now: playing differently than we expected them to; firmly in the upper-middle tier of the Big Ten; having lost games we didn't think the Wildcats lose at the beginning of the season and won games we didn't foresee them winning in August.
In that order. And it's the order that provides context for the season, adding color to the void left by the simplistic win-loss mark. It's the reason the general feeling among those around this team is an upbeat one. Northwestern has momentum. This team is playing well, perhaps very well. Those facts are undeniable. Had Northwestern won three of its first four before losing three of its next four (the inverse of what actually happened), that feeling would be more somber in nature. The difference in season arc between last year and this year explains the difference in consensus on how good each Northwestern team actually is/was after seven games, record aside.
After seven contests this year, Northwestern is 4-3, winners of three straight, 3-1 in Big Ten play, showing tremendous balance offensively and deserving of a ton of credit for salvaging a season that could have been given up on. There's even a chance, albeit not a huge one, that the Wildcats wins the Big Ten West; they'd need to win four of their last five and Nebraska would need to lose three of its last five (though those five include road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin, and a season-ending, very losable game at Iowa). It could happen.
After seven games in 2015, Northwestern had a better record (5-2), but had just been annihilated by Michigan and Iowa by a combined 68 points. There was a belief that Northwestern's start (particularly the win over Stanford) was an aberration, that the Wildcats were trending downward and would prove a worse team that its current record would have had you believe. This year, the same belief that the start must be taken with a grain of salt (particularly the loss to Illinois State), but now we're wondering if Northwestern is better than its record says, a team trending upward that will prove better than its current 4-3 mark conveys.
Saturday probably isn't the best game to make that judgement. Ohio State, having been diverted from its direct flight headed for the Playoff, now has to prove to voters that they're one of the four best teams in the country. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Urban Meyer hasn't been very kind to his players in practice this week, which is going to result in a really angry football team. When superiorly talented teams play really angry, it doesn't bode well for whichever team is unfortunate enough to be in their path. Last year, OSU followed its only loss of the season (vs. Michigan St.) with a 42-13 victory over No. 12 Michigan...at the Big House.
It's the reason Northwestern is a 26.5-point underdog. Winning is really, really unlikely — ESPN's Football Power Index gives Northwestern a 6.6 percent chance — but staying competitive, even if it's only for one half, would go a long way in carrying at least some of the momentum accrued over the past three games into next week's game vs. another Top 10 team in Wisconsin.
With five games left, Northwestern's season could still go in a number of directions; because of the vast disparity in quality of play between the first games and the recent ones, it's still difficult to assess this team. Do we disregard the Illinois St. game completely, or should it factor in the assessment? Are the wins over Iowa and Michigan State watered down because of those programs aren't what they were a year ago'? Is the offense going to continue to play like it did against Iowa, MSU and in the first half against Indiana, or will future opponents learn from what Indiana did to shut Northwestern down in the second half?
The Northwestern of the last three games, the fifth- to seventh-best team in the conference with one atrocious yet now-virtually discardable loss, stays somewhat close to Ohio State before winning three of its last four. That's my best guess as to what this team is.
But few expected last year's team, the one we thought after seven games was a not-really-good team with a really good record, to rattle off five in a row down the stretch. Perhaps a similarly unexpected turn awaits this year's squad, whether that's a positive or negative one.
With five games left in the season, we're about to find out exactly how good Northwestern is.