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Where are we Wednesday: Back to School!

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With the students arriving this weekend, Ryan Field will be rocking.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern football is where many fans expected three weeks into the season. While a win at Stanford would’ve been nice and a huge turning point for the program, 1-1 seems to be a realistic record for this team after two games.

Can we look back and analyze how the ‘Cats probably underperformed against what looks to be a worse Stanford team than we thought and criticize the program for another slow start? Sure. But what’s done is done. NU lost a game it was supposed to lose and took care of business against a team it was supposed to beat.

Northwestern’s season may have started three weeks ago, but this weekend’s matchup marks a whole new test. Conference play opening up, along with the meat of the Wildcats’ schedule (they will play five consecutive teams that have been ranked at some point this season) entirely changes the way this game will be looked at and approached by both fans and the media.

The Wildcats have earned their pedigree and respect the past few seasons via the way they elevate their level of play against conference opponents. Analysts can point to last year’s Big Ten West run as a fluke, but the reality is that this team has been one of the division’s best and most consistent for quite some time now. The stats don’t lie.

And that success is not limited to teams in the West. Since the division split in 2014, NU is a solid 8-5 in crossover games with teams in the East. That record includes three straight victories over the Spartan team they’ll face on Saturday, and three of the five losses have been games in which the ‘Cats have dropped to either Michigan or Ohio State by just one possession.

For whatever reason, Pat Fitzgerald’s team clearly elevates its level of play when they go up against some of the Big Ten’s best. The non-conference struggles remain concerning, but I think Wildcat fans can all agree that they tend to see a new energy around the program that has begun to form around this time of year for the past few seasons.

That energy manifests itself with the program showing the ability, time and time again, to play up to its competition. With Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa coming up consecutively on the schedule, that should make all fans excited for the prospect of what’s to come.

In some ways, this Saturday feels like the true start of the season for Northwestern football. The students are back on campus, and the leaves are starting to change colors in Evanston as the city braces itself for the return of Big Ten play. The turnout against UNLV was certainly solid, but Ryan Field will take on a whole new ambiance for Wildcat Welcome week as the ‘Cats host a Sparty team hungry for revenge.

Let’s hope that streak becomes four straight on Saturday.