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This final stretch will define the future of the Northwestern football program

The 2019 season, and its long-term effects, are far from over and decided.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Northwestern football season has felt like an eternity thus far, but believe it or not, we still have five games left. And despite the team’s 1-6 record, and 0-5 mark in conference play, there is plenty still to play for.

Through seven disappointing and gut-wrenching games to open the season, there are many things we know about this Wildcat team: Mick McCall is not a good offensive coordinator, the Northwestern defensive unit is still one of the nation’s best, and Pat Fitzgerald’s disdain for “kids and their cellphones” seems to be nearing an all-time high.

In many ways, each loss feels like another iteration of the same broken record at this point. And as the Wildcats prepare to enter November winless in conference play, it would be understandable for fans to call it quits on a season that, frankly, even the most pessimistic of were not fully prepared for after a monumental 2018.

But with five games remaining in Northwestern’s 2019 campaign, it is far too early to completely throw in the towel.

Despite the fact that nearly all of this team’s preseason goals are firmly out of reach, this final stretch of the season still leaves us with plenty to learn about Northwestern football and Pat Fitzgerald, especially their future. And for that future to remain promising, with one of the best recruiting classes in program history coming in next season, the Wildcats simply must avoid disaster.

Allow me to make my case.

For starters, this final month of the season represents a chance for Northwestern to prove that it’s not the Big Ten’s newest laughingstock, because as of right now, things are certainly trending that way.

Outside of rutger, the Wildcats are the only team in the conference with a negative point differential in the double digits (-13.7), and the offensive numbers specifically are beyond staggering at this point. The unit hasn’t scored a touchdown in nine quarters (and only has a single field goal in that span!), and NU is now officially last in the country in points per game.

A lack of production like this invites comparisons to the pitiful Illinois and rutger teams that this site, and others like it, have had its fair share of time spent poking fun at the past few seasons as the Wildcats enjoyed their greatest four-year stretch in program history. Through seven games, Northwestern is as close to bottom of the barrel of the Power Five as it comes, and these final five games present a chance to at least partially debunk and reverse that narrative.

For recruiting, fan interest, and even player morale going forwards, failing to bottom out is crucial. For the diehards who read every word we publish, this season is already a failure and a disappointment, and we certainly don’t blame you for feeling that way. But for Northwestern to avoid free fall in the eyes of fans nationwide, they can’t finish 2-10.

The good news for the Wildcats? Things are going to get at least a little bit easier compared to the seven-game gauntlet they faced to start the season. The Indiana team that NU gets in Bloomington this week is no joke, but after that, things should ease a little bit with a reeling Purdue team and a horrendous UMass squad coming to Ryan Field.

It’s one thing to sit here and lament as the Northwestern offense fails to move the ball against top tier defenses like Iowa and Ohio State, but if these struggles continue at the same trajectory against defenses like those boasted by the upcoming opponents, we are looking at a much different story, and perhaps an even bigger issue than what appears to be the case now.

Better performances against bottom-feeders will not excuse the poor coaching and lack of accountability we’ve seen virtually all season, but it could give some level of hope for this program moving forward; hope that something can be salvaged in the years to come with a monumental 2020 recruiting class on the way. And also, perhaps even more importantly, it would allow for the program’s national image to not be completely rent asunder.

In the past few weeks, I’ve read many comments and takes along the lines of “I hope the ‘Cats finish 1-11 so there are no excuses to keep McCall at the end of the year.” While I don’t think a 5-7 trip to the Quick Lane Bowl is necessarily a better alternative, it would at least show that not all hope is lost following the landmark ground broken by this program in 2018.

Besides, even if the ‘Cats finish with two or three wins, it’s hard to believe that McCall is going anywhere. After all, if he hasn’t been fired by now, why would we have reason to believe that one bad season would be what finally causes Fitz to pull the plug? As ridiculous as it feels at this point, there will always be another scapegoat that allows McCall to keep his job for at least another year.

So although this Northwestern season may feel over in theory, it is far from that in reality.

This team still has five more games to play, and the bottom line is, they all matter a lot. With more manageable opponents upcoming, there is no more blame to be placed on the offense struggling due to top-tier defenses, and certainly no more blame to be placed on the vague “lack of execution” that Fitz says plagues NU in every loss.

Around this time last season, Northwestern sat in firm control of the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West. Fast forward a year later, and the narrative has entirely flipped.

The Wildcats may not be playing for a chance to defend their Big Ten West crown, or even (realistically) a spot in a bowl game at this point, but they’re still playing for legitimacy, and a chance to show the country that there are still remnants to build off of following the best season of the Pat Fitzgerald era.