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Where Are We Wednesday, Week 1: Northwestern has been craving some consistency. Can it achieve just that in 2016?

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In an era defined by ups and downs, how important would another winning season be for the Wildcats?

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A new feature to our gameweek schedule this season is Where Are We Wednesday, a mid-week evaluation of where the team currently sits in the big picture of things, whether that be the Big Ten West, the Big Ten or even the nation. As Northwestern grinds through a 12-game regular season, that location changes every week based on what both the team and the teams around them do. Here’s the Week 1 edition.

Thirteen power-five conference teams won 10 regular season games last year. And 12 of them made the preseason top 25 in both the Associated Press and Coaches Polls.

The one outlier: Northwestern.

“We kind of feel a little bit disrespected, quite frankly,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after Northwestern’s scrimmage in Kenosha on August 20. “But that’s why preseason things don’t matter...We believe we’re building a top-25 program that’s going to compete for championships.”

Northwestern finds itself in a critical position this year. Coming off a 10-win season in 2015, the program has fans drooling over the prospect of sustained excellence. It’s a frustrated fanbase: Northwestern has won 10 games just four times in program history dating back to 1903. But that’s not what tugs at the core of fans the most—it’s the inability to sustain any pattern of winning. Northwestern is sometimes good, rarely great and never national title discussion. In the 1995 Rose Bowl season, Northwestern won 10 games. The program followed that up with nine the next season, but 5-7, 3-9 and 3-8 seasons followed to close out the millenium. In 2012, the 10-win Gator Bowl season under Fitzgerald was followed by consecutive 5-7 seasons. So it’s no surprise that this Northwestern team, coming off 10 wins with a promising second-year quarterback, a stud running back and a top-10 defense from a year ago, has faced significant pressure to deliver the steady success Northwestern fans have sought.

“Northwestern has always been that school that’ll have a couple years down and every now and then we’ll spike back up,” senior defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo, a member of two 10-win teams, said. “So having back-to-back solid 10-win seasons would say a lot about our program and bring tremendous respect. Because at the end of the day, people want to see consistency, and I feel like we can offer that this year.”

Clearly, another nine or 10-win season would mean the beginning of sustained success—the first back-to-back winning seasons since 2009-10 and the first of back-to-back nine-plus wins since 1995-96.

In sports, one’s an example, two’s a pattern, three's a trend. And Northwestern would settle for a pattern, as that's precisely what's been so elusive in recent years.

“From the inside-out, [another winning season] would encourage a lot of the younger guys,” senior wide receiver Austin Carr said. “Dynasty is too big of a word, but some kind of trend or pattern that younger guys want to build on. The continuity at the quarterback position with Clayton can help that pattern.”

Recruiting

In a story I wrote before the Wisconsin game last season, I stressed the importance of recruiting with the following chart.

Year

Big Ten class rank

2011

13

2012

12

2013

12

2014

7

2015

10

2016

10

2017

8

Along the same lines:

Programs need top-level recruits to win. In order to land top recruits, you need to win. It’s the chicken-and-egg paradox—you can't have an egg without a chicken but can't make a chicken without an egg. It can be a conundrum for programs that lack the national exposure and tradition of Ohio State and Alabama, but Northwestern is turning it around with improved recruiting classes.

For Northwestern, a small private school in a conference full of college football blue bloods, recruiting is vital. It played a factor in blowout losses last year to Michigan and Iowa, when the talent and athleticism gap was obvious. But in 2016, Fitzgerald put together his second-best class (2014 being the best). Players like Earnest Brown, a class-of-2017 defensive end who picked Northwestern over Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas, and Trevor Kent, a tight end and defensive end who chose Northwestern over Oklahoma, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska, are starting to commit to Northwestern over top powers.

Still, Northwestern doesn’t tend to pull in four-star recruits, and forget about five-stars. But the “Northwestern doesn’t get good recruits because of its high academic standards” doesn’t really hold true. Yes, Northwestern requires a high-caliber student than most football programs, but so does Stanford, a similarly prestigious academic institution.

Stanford routinely recruits four and even some five-star prospects and has been a national title contender fairly consistently over the last few years. So, why the difference? Well, Jim Harbaugh came in and turned a program with 16 wins in five seasons into a contender within three years by recruiting. He targeted a specific breed of powerful players like linemen, tight ends and fullbacks. He established a culture of winning with a competitive coaching style. Stanford had the seventh-best recruiting class in the Pac-10 in 2007. By 2009, Harbaugh’s program was top-three in the conference. And the Cardinal haven’t looked back since. Their win in the 2010 Orange Bowl jumpstarted their recruiting even more, as current Stanford coach David Shaw explained here.

Fitzgerald hasn’t become a national household name like Harbaugh (which also aided the current Michigan coach’s recruiting), and Stanford also boasts a more prestigious football history than Northwestern does, adding to the difference between the two programs. But Stanford demonstrates that school size (Stanford is actually smaller than Northwestern) and academic prestige don’t have to hold a football program back. A winning culture can absolutely do the trick.

This chart, created by Inside NU’s Josh Rosenblat, explains a lot.

Here, the improvement in Fitzgerald’s recruiting is on display. There are minor ups-and-downs, but a general upward trend is evident. Two-straight winning seasons would lead to a quicker path to the eventual goal—uninterrupted success.

TV ratings

Big games lead to big audiences. And impressive performances in those games can help jumpstart any program. Northwestern’s Week 1 win over Stanford generated 3.214 million views on ESPN, the fourth most-watched game of that week, trailing just Wisconsin vs. Alabama, Texas vs. Notre Dame and Louisville vs. Auburn. 2.96 million people watched the Wildcats’ 2014 win over Notre Dame on NBC. Those are two big wins on national TV with big audiences.

This season, Northwestern will again have opportunities on big stages. In October, the games at Michigan State and Ohio State should generate sizable TV audiences—especially if the Wildcats take care of their business in September.

Last year, significant losses to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee dinged Northwestern’s reputation—certainly a reason for their absence from the preseason top 25 and a number-seven ranking in ESPN’s preseason Big Ten rankings.

“We’re the only 10-win team to have our season defined by three games,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s kind of interesting—unique, I guess I’d say.”

Fitzgerald has a point, but blowout losses in big games can do a huge disservice to a program. Both the national media and recruits are impressed by clutch performances in big games. And more positive attention on Northwestern’s football program can lead to more national respect and better recruiting. A 10-2 season with a win or even a close effort in East Lansing or Columbus? Perfect for Northwestern.

As for the execution of that goal, that remains to be seen. Another 10-2 season seems like a lofty prediction at this point. Northwestern has a solid defense, but it has holes in the secondary with the injury to Keith Watkins II. Many Northwestern fans assume Clayton Thorson will take a huge sophomore leap, but that’s no given, while the loss of Dan Vitale and question marks at wide receiver don’t help. This team has potential, and at its best can post a 10-win season behind strong defense and an elite running game led by Justin Jackson. The flipside would be a slightly worse version of last year’s team with a tougher schedule. We’ll find out a lot more about this team starting September 3.

In a sentence

Northwestern football has the opportunity to overcome the inconsistency that has plagued the program for so many years, and another solid season would finally establish a true culture of winning for Fitzgerald's team.

“If we can be a consistent group, the sky's the limit,” Carr said. “Winning helps recruiting. Winning helps guys want to come to your school. Last season was great. This season we want to be better.”