With the season less than two weeks away, we begin to take a look at the bigger picture heading into 2017. Coming off a 7-6 season, Northwestern will be looking to perform better in 2017. What will we need to see in 2017 to consider it a success? Our writers discuss this purposely-open-ended question.
Caleb Friedman — Big Ten West contention
Record-wise, I'd probably say 8-4 or better is a success, but it's hard for me to get excited about an 8-4 record if Northwestern isn't in the hunt for the Big Ten West for at least part of the Big Ten season. I realize that contending in the Big Ten West is contingent on what other teams do, but that's the goal Pat Fitzgerald has set for his club, and with the individual talent the team has at certain spots, it's not implausible to see the Wildcats making a run at the division title. Anything above eight wins is a major success, and eight wins is good enough for me.
Noah Coffman — Nine-win season
Hitting the Pelini Mark™ can happen in one of two ways for Northwestern. Either the Wildcats go 8-4 and win a bowl game, which would be a slight disappointment in the regular season but a big step for the program as a second consecutive season ends on an upswing, or they go 9-3 and lose a bowl game, in which case they will almost by default contend for the Big Ten West title. Both paths constitute a success in my eyes, as Northwestern will have shown not only marked improvement from 2016’s 7-6 record, but laid out a path for a run at a Big Ten title.
Davis Rich— Finish the season ranked in the Top 25
Look, I grew up a Cal football fan so I know a thing or two about suppressing my optimism before the season kicks off. However, there’s something magical about the long August days leading up to that first weekend in September that has me drinking the Kool-Aid each fall. This year is no different. Northwestern is going 9-3 with losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Nebraska. A win in a late December (or early January!) bowl game will give Pat Fitzgerald his third 10-win season, and a top 25 ranking in the final AP poll will give the program plenty of momentum headed into 2018.
Martin Oppegaard — A four-game win streak
At Big Ten Media Days a national college football reporter asked me what I would consider a good season for Northwestern. I said eight regular season wins. This team has the chance to contend for the Big Ten West title, but as a lifelong Northwestern fan I have simply seen too much. 8-4 would be successful, 9-3 would be great, and anything more than that would be terrific.
The great thing is that each of those win totals is very attainable. For the sake of parity, a successful season would also include a four-game win streak. This could be to open the season against Nevada, Duke, Bowling Green and Wisconsin. Or it could be the next four against Penn State, Maryland, Iowa and Michigan State. Perhaps it’s to end the season over Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois. Success will be measured by its record at the end of the season, but if Northwestern wins four in a row at any point this season, it will encompass some impressive wins. The Wildcats won five consecutive games twice in 2015 but winning four in a row at some point this season would likely indicate a successful season.
Talia Hendel — An upper tier bowl win, and personnel improvement across the board
To start, Northwestern needs to reverse its slow start from last season. Making the big plays in close games and pulling out one big-time win, like the Wildcats nearly achieved at Ohio State in 2016, would be huge. A couple extra wins, compared to last season’s seven, and an upper tier bowl victory (a New Year’s Six spot, perhaps in the Cotton Bowl) would register as a successful season in my book.
However, it’s not just about winning, but improvement in more specific areas as well. Smoothly filling the spots of Anthony Walker Jr. and Austin Carr would ease a substantial amount of doubt in Northwestern’s ability to maintain — and further— last season’s success.
This goes hand in hand with the win totals, but progression in a few key areas could indicate a successful season. A higher total of time of possession would lead to a more rested defense. A stronger offensive line would likely work wonders for the pass completion rates. Better punt returning would be extremely important in terms of field position. Improvements in each of those areas would be just as important measurements of Northwestern’s success this season.
Will Ragatz — Double digit wins
Eight wins? Meh. Nine wins? Sounds like four losses to me. Ten wins? I like it.
Yes, I’m aware that that’s a ridiculous thing to say about a team that won just seven games last season, but I’m raising the bar this year. With all of the talent this team has on both sides of the ball, there’s no reason why Northwestern can’t get back to ten wins for the second time in three years. 10-2 in the regular season would require perfection if the Wildcats can’t upset Wisconsin or Penn State, but it’s possible. Perhaps more likely is 9-3, contending in the West all season long, and a bowl victory. That’s a successful season in my mind.
Tristan Jung — Natty or bust! (a West title would also be nice)
Ok, maybe that’s a bit far-fetched, but honestly, isn’t every team trying to win the National Championship? This isn’t actually my definition of success, but heck, it’s the end of the article. Win or go home!
Okay, I’ll compromise and say a Big Ten West title is fine, but I really think some sort of silverware should be the definition of success for this team. If not now, then when? Northwestern arguably has the best QB-RB duo in the division, it has solid offensive weapons and a great secondary. Yes, the Wildcats need about five linemen on both sides of the ball and a lot of luck, but I think we should take Fitz at his word and expect some championships out in Evanston.