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The post-10-win letdown: Will it happen again?

Hopefully not.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Of the four 10-win seasons in Northwestern history, three have come under Pat Fitzgerald, one of which being last season. At Northwestern, winning 10 games carries more meaning than at most schools; for a program bereft of much past success, every push into the national conversation moves the needle more than it would at other schools.

These highly successful seasons directly translate to better recruiting. After winning 10 games in 2012, NU’s 2014 class — players typically making their decisions in the months after the 2012 season — was one of the best in school history, producing Justin Jackson, Clayton Thorson, Tommy Doles and Garrett Dickerson, among others. Coming off a 10-win 2015 campaign, the 2017 recruiting class also has looked strong so far, after a school-record 12 true freshmen saw game action last season. Simply put, winning matters in recruiting.

At the moment, few schools have more momentum than Northwestern. The Wildcats own the longest winning streak of Power-Five teams, and the addition of sparkling Ryan Fieldhouse elevates Northwestern’s facilities to new heights. With all these positives, a strong 2018 is of the utmost importance. Every season matters, but, with quarterback Clayton Thorson entering his final season, a rebuilding season could be in store in 2019. The recruiting bump after 10-win seasons has been clear, but we haven’t yet seen what back-to-back stellar seasons could do.

In 2012, Northwestern was on its way that kind of stretch. It won its first four games before losing to Ohio State in heartbreaking fashion with College GameDay in attendance, a loss that sent the Wildcats into a brutal downward spiral. The Wildcats would go on to win just one more game the rest of the year (Shoutout Illinois for being bad).

The 2016 season ended up being a winning one, but barely. The season went the opposite way as 2012, with Northwestern getting off to a horrible, and I mean horrible, start to the season (Shoutout Illinois State for being better than Illinois). The team got its act together and won a bowl game, which is no small feat, but the season was still a mediocre one because the poor start.

Pat Fitzgerald’s teams have been consistently good recently, but they haven’t been consistently outstanding. Because of that, next fall represents a major opportunity. The schedule is exciting, with visits from Michigan and Notre Dame, which would help amplify the effects of a strong encore. Thorson’s health after a torn ACL makes it tough to have concrete expectations for where the team should finish. Regardless, there’s enough talent on the roster to make a season similar to 2017 happen again.

The thing is, winning 10 games is a relatively hollow benchmark. Yes, each successive win carries a lot of weight in a 12-game regular season. But, to really put NU in a better recruiting tier, the Wildcats need to win the Big Ten West. Pat Fitzgerald — and Inside NU commenters — have been saying this for years, but it’s really true. The next step for the program is to play in Indianapolis. But for now, following a 10-win season with another good one would be a solid start.