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Where Are We Wednesday: (Almost) The start of the race

It's coming, people.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As we did last year, Inside NU will be publishing a weekly “Where Are We Wednesday” column, which will take a broader look at where the team stands in the context of the season.

The race is looming, and the participants are getting ready to approach the starting line. The training, sweating and preparing for this annual barometer of success has been intense, and every competitor has its own form of optimism.

Why not us?

The aimless race we call college football — a marathon of sprints, with precarious twists and turns scattered throughout — gets chaotic once it begins. The anticipation has been months in the making. For some of the participants, it's been years in the making. It's so close that everyone both surrounding and within the spectacle can feel it; we all have that itch again. But, alas, more waiting.

That's where we are in the college football calendar — on the precipice of a 13-week thrill-ride, but not quite there. At this point, the players want to hit somebody other than the teammates they've been competing with for weeks. Students are finishing up their summers and preparing to go back to school. Camps are winding down, and gameplans for Week 1 are on the way, if not already distributed.

In Northwestern's case, accompanying the 2017 season are sky-high expectations from its fan base. On the national level, "dark horse" and "sleeper" are often tossed around when describing the Wildcats. There's a real excitement about this season's team. That's what you want this time of year.

In some ways, the expectations are merited. The team has some of best individual talent in the Big Ten and one of the best quarterback situations in the conference. The team's running back is special, and it has a safety who could be the highest Northwestern player drafted in a while.

But the team had great individual talent last season, and that resulted in a mediocre campaign.

To be more consistent in 2017, the team will need improvement in the trenches, where Northwestern's biggest question marks lie. The offensive line was the team's worst unit a season ago, but it brings back a lot of experience. The defensive line loses its most productive pass-rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo, and Xavier Washington — a projected starter — will almost certainly miss significant time after an arrest in the spring.

Oh yeah, and we still don't know who the starting middle linebacker is.

Those question marks could turn out to be strengths this season, but we just don't know yet. Again, more waiting.

When you take a broader view of "where we are," it's pretty freaking good, if you measure the current era of Northwestern football compared to the past. It seems like the consensus is that anything below 8-4 will be a disappointment, and that's evidence as to how far the program has come in recent years.

The bowl victory last season was fun to watch, but playing in lower-tier bowl games doesn't represent success anymore for the program. Success is being solid-to-good every year, and being great once in a while. The great hasn't really come yet, though 10-win seasons are nothing to scoff at, even for programs with way more football tradition than Northwestern.

The great will come with a division championship, or at least a valiant run at one. On the surface, that looks possible this season. But at this time of year, that doesn't mean a whole lot.

With the season under two weeks away, we know who the new players are. We've heard the camp rumblings about who's positioned to break out. We've analyzed last season, over-analyzed it a few times and looked at it again for good measure. We've sifted through preseason watch lists, scoured projections and seen practices firsthand. We're ready.

Let's get this race started.