With the season less than two weeks away, we begin to take a look at the bigger picture heading into 2016. The Wildcats are likely the least-talked-about 10-win team in the country from last year, but that doesn’t seem to bother Pat Fitzgerald. He’s focused on proving that it’s a team that will be talked about once we get into the swing of things. Coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons, last year’s 10-3 record was a major pleasant surprise, and overall a more successful season than anyone could have projected. What will we need to see in 2016 to consider it a success? Our writers discuss this purposely-open-ended question.
Zach Pereles: I think to truly consider this year a success, Northwestern needs to do three things. First, beat Iowa. Second, have no blowout losses. Third, win a bowl game.
To the first point (which overlaps with the second), Iowa is Northwestern’s biggest rival, at least in Pat Fitzgerald’s eyes. And look what the Hawkeyes have done to Fitzgerald’s team the past two seasons: a combined score of 88-17. In 2014, the Hawkeyes drubbed the Wildcats in Kinnick, the third straight loss in a row for NU that season. It was an embarrassment. Then in 2015, Northwestern needed to bounce back from its first loss of the season (at Michigan) but instead got throttled. It was the only game all year in which the defense truly looked bad. Time to get back at the defending B1G West champs.
Additionally, people aren’t taking Northwestern seriously because of the three big losses in 2015. Want to move up in the polls? Beat teams. Want to gain respect, though? At least hang with the elite ones.
Last, Northwestern is 2-10 in bowl games. That has to change. Remember 2012, when the Wildcats finished 10-3 and won their bowl game? Tons of respect and hype as a contender heading into 2013. But a 10-3 season and a bowl game blowout loss last year? It leads to nothing in terms of 2016 expectations, at least from national media. Time to earn some respect in addition to those wins.
Sam Brief: A trademark win. Last year, the Wildcats got that in Week 1 with a season-defining win over Stanford. It set the tone for the season and has proven to be the major positive talking point for Northwestern fans. A trademark win isn’t going to happen in Week 1 (Western Michigan <<< Stanford), but there are plenty of opportunities. In October alone, the Wildcats travel to Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus. A win in one of those three games would be season-defining, and if they win the rest of the games they’re supposed to win, would cement this season as a success. Even more important is a second-consecutive winning season, preferably of nine-plus wins. After their practice in Kenosha yesterday, seniors Austin Carr, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Jaylen Prater were adamant that two winning seasons in a row (which hasn’t happened since the 2009-10 seasons), and even two consecutive 10-win seasons (which hasn’t happened in Northwestern football’s history) would help sustain a more serious national reputation for the program, as well as help their recruiting. In order to achieve that, a win against Iowa, Michigan State or Ohio State is essential, and I think a winning season with one of those three victories would be considered a success, especially given the success of last year. And, like Zach said above, a bowl win would go a long, long way.
Will Ragatz: Looking at Northwestern’s schedule, the magic number for a successful 2016 is eight. Eight regular season wins, with none of the four losses coming in Michigan/Iowa/Tennessee fashion, would be a successful season for the Wildcats. A bowl win would be a huge added bonus, but if Northwestern plays a close game and comes up short against a solid team, the season will have still been a good one. Now, how does Pat Fitzgerald get his team back to eight wins? By beating almost all of the teams Northwestern is better than or similar to, talent-wise. I don’t think a win against any of Iowa, OSU or MSU is necessary to call this season a success; all three of those would be shocking upsets on the road. What that means is the Wildcats have to go 8-1 against the rest of their schedule. A single close loss against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota or Indiana is acceptable, but that’s it. Obviously, if one of those eight wins comes against one of the three elite teams, that’s even better. This scenario is highly doable, but will take plenty of strong performances. Even though an eight-win season without a marquee victory wouldn’t necessarily do much to change the national perception of Northwestern, Wildcat fans should hold their heads high if the team can reach that plateau.
Josh Burton: Success is obviously a vague word, so I’ll start with a vague answer. In order for this season to be termed a success, Northwestern has to build on its surprising 2015 season and continue the momentum from it, as opposed to taking a step back and reverting to the mediocre teams of previous years. By building on last year’s 10 wins, I mean that Northwestern has to string together multiple bowl seasons in a row, starting with 2016. The schedule is tougher, thanks to the new nine-game conference schedule, but there are enough winnable games (the three in non-conference, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois, etc) for this team to post at least six wins. Sure, one or two of those games could easily result in a loss, but if Northwestern is going to continue to be in the top half of the Big Ten, bowl eligibility is a minimum.
Furthermore, in the losses to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee in 2015, Northwestern was outscored by 107 points. Elite, even just good, teams don’t get beaten that badly against solid competition. When playing the Iowa’s and Ohio State’s of the conference, Northwestern has to be somewhat competitive or—like last season—the close wins against subpar foes will be severely overshadowed. In order to be a consistent contender, and use the 10-win season in a beneficial way going forward, Northwestern needs to be formidable all year long, not just in isolated pockets here and there.
Martin Oppegaard: After its last 10-win season in 2012 that ended with a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State, Northwestern took a big step backwards with two consecutive five-win seasons. That cannot happen again if Northwestern is looking to solidify itself among the Big Ten elite. The Wildcats absolutely need to start 3-0 and build on that momentum heading into conference play. Let’s follow up a great season with a great season.
This year’s schedule is daunting, but that gives Northwestern more opportunities for that trademark win. Last year, it was Week 1 against Stanford, or you could say it was on the road, in the snow, amidst some controversy at Camp Randall. This year, road games at Iowa City, East Lansing, and Columbus are great opportunities for Northwestern to get a signature upset win on the road. Winning one of these three would be great, but at the very least, keep it respectable.
Finally, I think success can be defined by ending the season on a high note with a bowl victory. I watched in horror as missed kicks doomed Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl and Outback Bowl, and saw Northwestern come up short in the Ticket City and Meineke Car Care Bowl. We don’t need to talk about last year. All I want is a bowl victory.
Zach Wingrove: I’m in agreement with Ragatz. I think with the schedule that Northwestern has this season, eight regular season wins should be the goal. In my opinion, Northwestern’s first three non-conference games, along with conference matchups against Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois are all games that the Wildcats should win. Then I have the two home matchups against Nebraska and Wisconsin as toss ups and the road matchups against Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State as projected losses (although I’m still skeptical of Michigan State given all the talent it lost from last season). Essentially, if Northwestern can take care of business in all seven of the games that it should win and win at least one of the two toss up games I mentioned, the Wildcats will finish at that magic number of eight regular season wins and go to back-to-back bowl games. Some of the other goals listed above such as winning a bowl game and having no blowout losses would be added bonuses; but I think coming off a 10 win season in 2015, it would be huge if the Wildcats can show some consistency handling the lower-tier teams in Big Ten and reaching eight wins in 2016.
Rob Schaefer: To me, the biggest key to a successful 2016 season for Northwestern is putting 2015 as far in the rearview mirror as possible. While 10 wins and an Outback Bowl berth, regardless of the result, is definitely something to build on, it’s important for Northwestern players, coaches and fans alike to not let those accomplishments over-inflate expectations for this year. Northwestern over-achieved more than most anyone in college football in 2015, and while a lot of that is attributable to Pat Fitzgerald’s ability as a coach, there’s also reason to believe the Wildcats’ 2015 campaign could have just been a statistical anomaly. Success is ultimately defined by expectation, and maybe I’m being too much of a realist here, but I’d consider a ‘successful’ Northwestern football season winning all the games it should (there are seven of those), picking up a marquee win or two along the way (think Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa) and winning a Bowl game, something the program has done only twice in the last 68 years. For these reasons, my ‘magic number’ of wins for a successful Northwestern football season is eight (and a bowl win)... I’ll leave a little room for the Cardiac ’Cats to exceed expectations one more time.
Ian McCafferty: Three things: a winning record, a bowl game victory and statistical offensive improvement. These sort of all go hand in hand considering Northwestern will need improvement on offense to be better this season, but don’t exactly have to.
First things first, they have to have a winning record. They can’t pull a 2013 type season again, or they’ll lose all the momentum they gained last year. Whether this means 7-5 or 10-2, either would be a success. Just get at least a decent bowl game against a decent opponent and the season would be a base level success.
Now if that happens, that leads us to probably the most important factor here. Winning a bowl game. I’m sure most of you already know this, but Northwestern has only ever won two bowl games, and one of those was in 1948. Honestly, as long as a bowl victory doesn’t improve the Wildcats to 6-7, this by itself would make the season a success.
The third part of our trifecta would be offensive improvement. Thorson looks better, a couple wide receivers emerge as go-to guys, the running game is still potent, all of that and more. This should be considered a transition year by any means, especially after winning 10 games in 2015, but if the offense can improve this year, then that means 2017 (given the schedule) could truly be something special.