Every season, the expectations change for NPat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats. Earlier this decade, fans would’ve likely constituted a ‘successful season’ as a mere trip to bowl game. But as the program has progressed over the last few years, the standards have been raised. Now that Northwestern has shown that they are not only capable of being a consistent bowl team, but of both winning bowl games and, now, the Big Ten West, the expectations have again shifted. But by how much?
Here’s what our writers had to say:
Noah Coffman: Eight regular season wins and significant contention in the West
After last year’s incredible finish, it’s natural for Wildcat fans to want the next step in 2019: a Big Ten Championship. But with the significant losses the team has endured, their difficult schedule, and their relative youth, that accomplishment isn’t close to necessary for a successful season. If Northwestern can prove they can continue to compete with the rest of the big boys in the West even in everybody else’s “bounce-back season” with two years of Hunter Johnson still to come, they are in great shape. Pat Fitzgerald’s career has been all about consistency, and another dose of that in 2019 would set the stage for the Wildcats to take the next steps in the years to come.
Lia Assimakopoulos: Bouncing back after tough losses
Northwestern has arguably one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten this season, and it’s only expected that the Wildcats will drop a few of those games, especially on the road. Given the anticipated losses, this season will be defined by how the team bounces back. After starting last season 1-2 with two defeats that should have been wins, Northwestern was able to turn the season around with four wins in the Big Ten, including two huge conference victories over Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The Wildcats will face a more extreme test this season, having to face five ranked Big Ten opponents in a row with No. 18 Michigan State, No. 19 Wisconsin, No. 24 Nebraska, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 20 Iowa. This stretch will make or break the Wildcats’ season, and how Northwestern comes out of those five games will easily determine any potential postseason play. If the ‘Cats drop any of the early games in that stretch, putting it behind them and moving forward is crucial in a season as short as that of college football.
Joe Weinberg: Win the West
The Wildcats set the bar for their program last year. In a season where they struggled mightily on offense and showed a substantial number of flaws, Northwestern was still able to run the table in the West and earn their ticket to Indy. Why shouldn’t we expect them to do it again? Now that we know the Wildcats are capable of winning this division even in a year with shaky offensive play, I think anything less than another trip to Indianapolis should leave fans somewhat unfulfilled. It won’t be easy with the schedule and quarterback change, but it’s time for fans to raise their own standards after the historic 2018 season.
Colin Kruse: Prove that last season wasn’t a fluke
The five game stretch of Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Iowa will surely determine how Northwestern’s postseason aspirations will play out. Last season saw a breakthrough, with Pat Fitzgerald finally leading his team to the B1G Championship Game. While the pressure to return to Indianapolis certainly does not match that of an Ohio State, Michigan, or Michigan State, Fitz certainly has a talented team on his hands in his bid to repeat as champions of the West.
A winning record against B1G opponents in September and October will put the ‘Cats in the running for another trip to Indianapolis, and, in turn, a big win at Wisconsin or at home against Ohio State will elevate the program to the respect it deserves both within the conference and on the national stage.
Avery Zimmerman: Beating lesser competition and competing for the West
Sometimes you have to take a step back and take a fair look at this program from an outsider’s perspective. Northwestern has outperformed reasonable expectations in the past few seasons, which has rightfully heightened our hopes and goals for the team. But in all fairness, to expect NU to go out and win the West is a lot. In a year of transition with a young team as well as a brutal schedule, if the ‘Cats took care of business when they should and put up a fight for the division, I’d be pleased.
Claire Kuwana: Recreate (or at least come close to) last year’s success
I hate to beat a dead horse here, but this really is the biggest question coming into the 2019 season. Last year was one of the most successful seasons in program history, and now is the time for this team to prove that wasn’t just a one-time thing. They don’t necessarily need to with the Big Ten West again — although that would be ideal — but they do need to at least keep up with the other Big Ten contenders. This team is arguably more talented and well-rounded than ever before. They have the potential to do just as well as last year, and if they really want to call 2019 a successful season, they are going to have to do just that.
Eli Karp: Eight wins
Even for an improving program, not every year will be better record-wise. I think an eight-win season with the current positional question marks and fast-improving Big Ten West competition would be a solid accomplishment. Maybe taking care of UNLV and UMass without any hiccups would be nice, and continuing to show the recent in-conference success isn’t a fluke would help garner the program more respect. This year might be “okay” versus a potentially very special 2020. But I’m okay with eight wins as “okay!”
Matt Albert: Another trip to Indy
While I see a lot of opportunities and markers that could be used for trying to spin this as a successful season if things start poorly (see: win at Wisconsin or beat OSU), I think that with the momentum of last season the bar has been set higher. The Wildcats are fully in the hunt for the West this year, and I could easily see it cannibalizing itself with almost every team (except Illinois) having a decent shot of taking the division. A team with two, or even three losses in-conference could certainly win the West. At this point, though, Northwestern fans should expect success, and that’s why reaching Indianapolis once more should be the bar.