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Where are We Wednesday: Northwestern’s 3-3; now comes the stretch that will define its season

The West might be out of reach, but there are still six games left to make some noise.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but Northwestern is 3-3. And although we optimistically yearned for better during the summer months, that’s not too far off the record we expected to see at the 2017 season’s midway point.

After dropping consecutive games as double-digit underdogs to now-Top 5 teams Wisconsin and Penn State, the Wildcats got back on track last weekend in College Park. They did what any competent Big Ten opponent should do to a Maryland team down to its third-string quarterback, and that’s shut down the Terrapins’ run game and take care of business. The offense, especially Justin Jackson, came alive too.

Games tend to be more fun when you aren’t playing against elite, Playoff-contending competition. If last week was any indication, that fun should continue for the next month and a half.

I say fun because the remaining six games on Northwestern’s schedule are ostensibly winnable. This Saturday’s matchup with Iowa opened as a pick-em (the line has since moved a point and a half in the Hawkeyes’ favor). After Iowa comes a ranked but flawed Michigan State team. Depending on the outcome of those contests, there’s a real possibility that the Wildcats are favored in their last four games. In the second part of this confusing season, there’s a real chance at seven or eight wins. What that would signify about the long-term outlook of the program is open for interpretation.

Inconsistency has plagued Northwestern in 2017. It nearly cost them against 1-6 Nevada. It did against Duke. Playing four quarters of good football could have been enough to win in Madison. We have yet to see that so far and Northwestern is 3-3 heading into this showdown with Iowa. That seems just about right.

Save for the 2014 and 2015 atrocities, Iowa and Northwestern have been competitive for the past decade. The two Big Ten West foes have split the last ten meetings. The Wildcats have won 11 of 20 since snapping Iowa’s 21-game win streak in 1995. In recent years, the game has served as a good barometer for Northwestern’s season. Last year, it was a thriller in Kinnick that turned Pat Fitzgerald’s team’s fortunes around.

This year, it’s a home bout against the Hawkeyes that could create even more positive momentum for the Wildcats’ season. A win would solidify NU’s status as a bowl game near-lock, and if it can take down MSU too, a team with a nonzero possibility of winning out. It may not mitigate the embarrassment of the Duke and Penn State games, but the second half of Northwestern’s schedule has only become increasingly favorable as the season wears on.

And a loss? Well, that would heighten the importance of the Oct. 28 date against Sparty. Losses to both teams could jeopardize postseason play. Home losses to both would automatically qualify the second half as disappointing.

Saturday is far from a must-win game. With an underwhelming 3-3 record and two Big Ten losses under its belt, Northwestern won’t be contending for a conference title this season. Yet for all of its shortcomings, Fitzgerald’s team has plenty left to play for. This is the stretch that will define the season, with a solid bowl game within the realm of possibility. With all due respect to the Wildcats’ last four opponents, the next two games at Ryan Field will make or break the second half.

It starts on Saturday. Beat the Hawkeyes.