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Five big questions No. 1: Can the Wildcats live up to expectations?

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With 17 of the 22 starters returning, the Wildcats should be playing at a higher level more consistently in 2017.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations can be a peculiar metric to assess. They’re far from perfect. They’re simple projections of what people think should happen based mainly on what has already happened and what they think will happen. They’re artificial. They rarely take into full account every aspect.

And yet, in 2017, expectations will be heaped on the Northwestern Wildcats. They will be there because Northwestern returns 17 of its 22 starters, including its talented quarterback-running duo, a star wide receiver and all four members of its secondary while also getting back one especially talented projected starter at cornerback who missed the entire 2016 season.

Expectations will be heaped on because the quarterback tripled his touchdowns thrown from his freshman year to his sophomore year. The running back shredded a nationally-ranked team in a bowl game victory, a star emerged at safety and there’s a lot of young talent in the defensive trenches. The members of Pat Fitzgerald’s top recruiting class ever are either juniors or seniors. If there’s ever a year to be really good, it would seem, it’s this year.

But this isn’t a program that’s dealt well with high expectations, especially recently. I need not to go into the details of 2013 and 2014. And after 2015’s 10-win campaign came out of nowhere and lots of key pieces returned from that season, the expectations were high for 2016.

That’s where expectations got tricky. Based solely on the guys returning plus expected improvement formula, most prognosticators rightly called for another good year. What followed was the exact opposite: a loss to a MAC team (albeit the best MAC team there is) preceded a loss to a FCS team. The Wildcats managed an ugly triumph over ACC bottom-feeder Duke before getting pounded in the trenches against Nebraska, a team the Wildcats head defeated last season in Lincoln.

A record of 1-3 was far from the expectation, but it was the reality. This was not a good football team; Pat Fitzgerald openly admitted it. Then something changed. Fitzgerald changed his coaching strategy, citing a lack of “alpha males.” Ifeadi Odenigbo delivered a team sermon that must have been half Miracle on Ice speech, half sermon. The Wildcats ripped off three straight. They were 4-3, and even after a close loss in Columbus, they were in the race for the Big Ten West crown, a spot that corresponded with those expectations.

But losses against Wisconsin and Minnesota — games in which the Wildcats once again struggled in the trenches — destroyed any title dreams, and the Wildcats finished 6-6. A win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl showed how good the team could be when it was playing well, and pushed the meter a bit further forward for 2017.

So can they live up to the hype? It hasn’t been a fun question for the NU faithful to answer. The Wildcats will need guys to step up in the locker room — much less on the field — with key figures such as Odenigbo, Anthony Walker Jr., Austin Carr, C.J. Robbins and Andrew “The Bull” Scanlan having departed.

Clayton Thorson seems to be a prime candidate on the offensive side of things. The soft-spoken quarterback showed major improvement in 2016, and he clearly took a necessary step forward as a leader. But with a few team leaders gone, Thorson, in his third year as a starter and second full offseason as QB1, will have to take another step in that department. If the Wildcats struggle, he will be held more accountable than ever.

The defense returns Godwin Igwebuike, Keith Watkins II (who Fitzgerald said was very much missed in that leadership role after he tore his ACL) and a bevy of other young talents. Who replaces Odenigbo as an emotional leader? Or Walker Jr.? There are opportunities to become true leaders in every facet, and it’d be preferable that those guys step forward now rather than four weeks into the season.

Of course luck played a factor in 2016, too. Who would have predicted the secondary would lose both of its projected starting cornerbacks by Week 2 and at one point be missing four of its top five? What about the early bumps and bruises for Walker Jr. and Jordan Thompson. Or the season-long absence of Ian Park and Shane Mertz on the offensive line? Or the retirement of Jayme Taylor. This list is getting long. Yes, every team deals with injuries, but if you take into account what the Wildcats went through in that department early in the season, perhaps even reaching a bowl game given the difficult schedule was a success.

What is certain, though, is that a similar season won’t be a success in 2017. At every position except kicker and long-snapper, the Wildcats have either significant experience or significant skilled depth. At some positions, like running back and defensive line, they have both. Skill doesn’t win you games, but it surely helps you do so. The pieces are there in that area.

So those expectations are sky high for 2017, and rightfully so. Only time will tell if this team can live up to them, and as soon as the team gets back into winter workouts, the clock is ticking — a clock that wasn’t kind to the Wildcats in 2016.