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Wildcat Throwaround: What would make a successful season for Northwestern football?

Our staffers present different barometers for success.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

With the season less than two weeks away, we begin to take a look at the bigger picture heading into 2018. Coming off a 10-3 season, Northwestern has a more difficult schedule this season. What will we need to see in 2018 to consider it a success? Our writers discuss this purposely-open-ended question.

Caleb Friedman: Winning nine games in the regular season

Winning nine games means Northwestern would probably either beat one of Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame and everyone else, or beat two of those teams and drop another game along the way. NU probably wouldn’t win the Big Ten West by going 9-3, but I think it’s not necessarily “West or bust” for the season to be a success. Being consistent enough to win nine games against a schedule as tough as this one would be another step in the right direction, especially when most projections have NU at 6-8 wins.

Avery Zimmerman: Beat an elite team at home and win a bowl game

This whole offseason Northwestern social media has promoted the “best home schedule in the country.” It would be a pretty tall task to beat two of Michigan, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin, but to beat one of them *and not lose any trap games*, then follow it up with a bowl game win, would uphold the momentum the Wildcats had coming into the year. A year in which NU wins 7-8 games, pulls off a big win at Ryan Field, and keeps the postseason win streak alive represents realistic but challenging goals, and would have to be seen as a success.

Noah Coffman: Stay in contention in the Big Ten West

Bowl games are nice and all, and it would certainly be cool to take down a Big Ten power or Notre Dame at Ryan Field. But Northwestern has won 27 games over the past three years, including victories over Michigan State, Stanford, and Notre Dame, plus two bowl wins. The next step for this program is a Big Ten West Title, and while the difficult schedule the Wildcats are primed to face may not make that feasible for 2018, another year of contention will continue to lay the groundwork. Northwestern finished just two games back of Wisconsin, with only nine points in their head-to-head matchup actually separating the two teams in the standings. If they finish near the top again, avoiding any significant loss of ground, the team will be primed for a run at the Big Ten Championship game and the season will be a success.

Davis Rich: Start the season 4-1

It’s been no secret that Northwestern has struggled at the beginning of each of the past two seasons. The Wildcats dropped their first two games in 2016 and started the season 1-3. Last year, Northwestern posted a clunker in Durham and lost the two toughest games on its schedule (Penn State and Wisconsin) to fall to 2-3. The 2016 and 2017 squads recovered to earn bowl eligibility, but a slow start in 2018 could doom these Wildcats given their difficult second-half schedule.

Northwestern could exorcise its early-season demons with a quick start this year. I think NU has about a 30 percent chance of winning its first three games, but, heck, let’s take it to the next level. If Northwestern can win its first three games AND split with Michigan and Michigan State, the Wildcats will be in position to earn bowl eligibility before it has to play Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Iowa consecutively. And if NU can win one of those three games, they’re looking at a nine-win season. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves — first, Northwestern needs to start the season on the right foot.

Talia Hendel: Beating Notre Dame or Michigan

By no means do I actually mean to say that this is the only thing that would make this season successful. A fully healthy Clayton Thorson and Nate Hall playing at their best, development in positions with less established depth and a solid nine or 10 win season are arguably just as important in my book - but these two games would carry a certain significance that the rest wouldn’t.

It’s not to say that Michigan State or Wisconsin pose much less of a threat, but those are teams the Wildcats have been able to prove themselves against - or at least stick with - recently. With the Wolverines on the schedule, Northwestern has a chance to come out on top since their last win against Michigan 10 years ago, and the last time the two teams met, Jim Harbaugh’s squad gave Fitz’s crew a 38-0 beating. As for Notre Dame, Northwestern hasn’t taken on the Fighting Irish since 2014 when the ‘Cats just barely bested them for the second time in 40 years. Showing that Northwestern can not just keep up with, but beat teams that are national powerhouses year after year would be a huge step for the program and add very important games to the list of meaningful wins.

Martin Oppegaard: Beat the Fighting Irish

I’ll echo a lot of what Talia said. The 2014 season was not successful. Northwestern lost its season opener to Cal, a fellow 5-7 team, then dropped to 0-2 after playing a better Northern Illinois team. They salvaged wins against Penn State and Wisconsin before losing four consecutive conference games. Then Nov. 15 in South Bend happened. We all remember where we were for the inscrutable comeback manufactured by Trevor Siemian, an opportunistic defense and Jack Mitchell, among others. I sat in the stands in Lincolnshire, Ill. watching Northwestern commit Cam Green reel in nine balls for 102 yards and a touchdown to lead Stevenson to a Class 8A quarterfinals win over New Trier; I was in front of a TV for the fourth quarter.

Nobody was satisfied with the end result of 2014. With deference to all of you, we don’t need to talk about that last game. But the silver lining was that Northwestern beat Notre Dame for the ninth time in 48 attempts. If the record at the end of the season looks a little too much like 2014, it won’t be successful. If Northwestern is bowl eligible - without relying on its unprecedented APR score to get there - and one of those wins is on Nov. 3, I’m calling this season a success. If Green has a big game, I won’t be surprised. It would only be fitting.

Graham Brennan: Win the Big Ten West

What are we waiting for? Fitz has repeatedly spoken of his ultimate goal — winning a Big Ten Championship. The quartet of national powers looming in the Big Ten East will always make achieving that goal difficult. Winning the West is an unaccomplished, logical and important first step.

What better time for Northwestern to take that first step than in 2018? It returns Clayton Thorson, a projected 2019 Day 1 draftee at the game’s most important position, and two All-Big Ten linebackers to man the middle of what was a dominant 2017 rush defense.

Yes, the 2018 Wildcats are underdogs. But the 2019 ‘Cats will not feature Nate Hall, Montre Hartage, Jordan Thompson or Clayton Thorson — and it might not feature draft eligible Paddy Fisher and Joe Gaziano. They’ll most certainly be underdogs too.

Another 10-win season would be nice. Absolutely nobody, besides Fitz, would publicly gripe about it. But another, for lack of a better word, empty 10-win season wouldn’t be deemed a success by the programs head coach. He wants more and that should be celebrated.

The 2018 Badgers will bring back a daunting offensive line to protect and guide their star quarterback and running back. They look primed to make another run at the CFP. A $270 million comes with expectations. The 2018 Wildcats have a star quarterback, an experienced dominant front seven and a home date with Wisconsin. The Badgers will seemingly always be the heavy favorite in the West. What are we waiting for?