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Wildcat Shootaround: What would you consider a failed season for Northwestern?

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

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. After discussing what it would take for a successful season yesterday, we turn our focus to the opposite end of the spectrum. What would a failed season look like? Our writers discuss.

Zach Pereles: My answer to this question is much more simple than yesterday’s three-part explanation. If Clayton Thorson isn’t considerably better and the Wildcats’ record isn’t above .500, it’s a failed season.

We’ve talked at length about the improvements we expect to see from Thorson. He can’t really be much worse, and the offensive balance should be much better. There should be some addition by subtraction out wide: Christian Jones, Mike McHugh and Cam Dickerson were all below-average targets who saw a majority of snaps. They’re all gone. A lot of guys with experience come back up front, same with the running back position. Thorson should cut down his turnovers, complete a higher percentage of his passes and be better going down the field in 2016. If he’s not passing both the statistical improvement and eye tests, that’s a major failure.

The second part is straightforward. If NU doesn’t make a bowl game, it’s an obvious failure. If the team goes 6-6 and loses a mediocre bowl game, that’d also be a failure in my mind. At some point, you have to win a bowl game; Pat Fitzgerald is 1-5 in them right now.

Ian McCafferty: This one’s simple. If Northwestern misses a bowl game, it’s a failed season. The team has to avoid a repeat of 2013 at all costs.

After gaining massive momentum nationally last season, Northwestern has to keep that going by having, at bare minimum, a winning season. It would help continue the recruiting uptick as well as firmly cement Northwestern in the national conscious. They Wildcats don’t have to win the Big Ten West or even be particularly good, they just have to make sure they go 1-0 at least six or seven times.

The interesting question here is: “if Northwestern wins a significant amount of games, but Clayton Thorson isn’t any better, is it still a success.” Short answer, yes. Long answer, yeah, but it makes the season a bit more confusing and probably still ruins some of the momentum. Either way, Northwestern has to make a bowl for this to not be a failed season.

Will Ragatz: With all of the talent this team has on both sides of the ball, a sub-.500 season would be a failed one. If Northwestern goes 6-6 and wins the Meineke Car Care Bowl (or another of that nature), 2016 would just avoid failure status. However, a loss in such a bowl game would mean a 6-7 finish, a major setback in the Wildcats’ long-term progress picture. Failing to qualify for a bowl entirely would be a disaster, simply because this roster is too good to win only five games.

Beyond looking at just the surface, which is the win-loss record, there are a couple of other factors that could make 2016 a failed season. The first one, which has already been discussed, is the development of Thorson. If Northwestern scratches out seven wins but Thorson looks just as unprepared for Big Ten defenses as he did last season, that’s a failure in my mind. The other factor is a potential loss to Purdue. Northwestern could go 11-1 in the regular season and win the Big Ten championship but if that one loss comes to this Purdue team, 2016 will have been garbage and everyone should be fired.

Josh Burton: I agree with Ian: A bowl appearance is the absolute minimum for Northwestern to avoid a failure of a season.

Going from 10 wins and an admittedly disappointing bowl loss to less than six wins and no bowl would undo all of the positive feelings around a program that should be moving in the right direction. With a successful, and surprising, 2015 season and the forthcoming football complex, Northwestern needs to take another step forward, which should also help with recruiting.

Of course, a lot of this will be determined by the play of Clayton Thorson, who was unimpressive in his freshman season and will need to improve significantly just to keep Northwestern’s offense at a level similar to what it was at in 2015. The schedule is more difficult this season and, without Dean Lowry, it’s reasonable to expect a decline from the defense. As a result, Thorson has to play better and justify all of the expectations that have been placed upon him. If he isn’t able to, this year might be a failure for both him and the team.

Martin Oppegaard: Anything less than a bowl appearance would be a failure, and if Northwestern scrapes by with the bare minimum and plays in the Pinstripe or Quick Lane Bowl, the Wildcats better win it. That said, I’d say anything less than 7 wins would be disappointing, while missing a bowl game would be a big step back for the program.

Of course last season was far from a failure, but it would be nice if the Wildcats avoid that big blowout loss that we saw a couple times too often in 2015. I’m convinced that this is a better team than last season, so the bare minimum for 2016 to not be deemed a failure is to finish with a winning record. There’s too much talent on both sides of the ball for the bar to be set any lower than that, and hopefully this shootaround is a pointless one that we will all laugh about at the end of another successful season.

Sam Brief: A 6-6 season that yields a no-name bowl appearance is disappointing, but it’s not a failure. Given some of the departures and injuries from last year’s 10-3 team, mixed with a more daunting schedule, it wouldn’t be a failure. That said, I’m sure most Northwestern fans would be far from satisfied with that.

As others have said, missing out on a bowl and going 5-7 (or worse) would be a failure. Coming off a 10-3 season and retaining a promising quarterback, stud running back and top-tier defense nationwide, missing out on a bowl would be a failure. One game can make a difference for this season—I interpret a 6-6 bowl season very differently from a 5-7 team.