On December 1st, 2018, swathes of purple swarmed the city of Indianapolis, celebrating the unprecedented accomplishment by a Northwestern Football team. For the first time since 2000, the Wildcats had an opportunity to win a Big Ten title. Walking through the city pregame, the celebrations for the Wildcat fans were well under way before the game even kicked off. Inside Lucas Oil Stadium, the vocal purple corner held its own against an overwhelming sea of red, demonstrating its support and admiration for its team. On the heels of the loss to Ohio State, Pat Fitzgerald said he hoped competing for Big Ten Championships would become the “new normal” for this program.
Sitting here, almost exactly two years to the day, one can’t help but feel that this is what Pat Fitzgerald had in mind.
It is eerie that last year’s team ended up 3-9, for as soon after every huge success this program has had in the modern era, it has often followed it up with a clunker. For every single high Gary Barnett and Randy Walker brought the programs, rarely could they sustain that success. They showed that for all the peaks they reached, this program still had room to improve.
On the heels of Gary Barnett’s Rose Bowl team and the 1996 team that won a share of the Big Ten title, he led the Wildcats to two straight losing seasons before resigning after posting a 3-9 record in ‘98. But many think that has more to do with a falling out with the Northwestern administration rather than poor results. Two seasons after Randy Walker’s 2000 Northwestern team won a share of the Big Ten, the Wildcats once again ended up with a 3-9 record. Off the back off the 2002 season, the 2003 Wildcats ended the regular season with a 6-6 record, but a loss in the Motor City Bowl left Northwestern with yet another losing season.
There’s no doubt that the result of this past Saturday was disappointing, I think every single person surrounding the program will tell you that. It potentially blew a shot at a New Year’s Six Bowl appearance. However, on a macro scale, the success thus far this season puts 2020 NU on par with some of the best in program history.
I can't stop thinking about how completely bizarre it is that a No. 14 Northwestern team is an actual disappointment— Ian McCafferty (@Itmccaf52) December 2, 2020
Seeing this tweet, I couldn’t help but reflect on the rising standards of this program. It’s remarkable how much progress Fitz has made, where things that would have previously been seen as the ceiling at a place like Northwestern are now the expectation.
All of that side, the preseason goals set out for this team are still possible. NU merely needs some formalities to clinch the West division, and we don’t know who it’ll face in Indianapolis. Facing Ohio State as opposed to Indiana clearly changes the complexion of the matchup, and as weird as this Big Ten season has been, the return to the conference title game is no fluke. Competing for the Big Ten West is different from competing for the Big Ten Championship is different from competing for New Year’s Six bowls.
It’s unclear just how high the ‘Cats can climb this year, and the loss to MSU undoubtedly knocks them down a rung, but the gap between the previous levels can often be just one win.
As for this upcoming week and weekend, I hope it offers Northwestern players and fans alike a break to reflect. Raising the program’s expectations is necessary and a testament to the new normal Fitz wants to establish, yet it still feels pertinent to compare this year’s team to that of years’ past. Pandemic notwithstanding, the expectations and hopes for the program have risen since the ‘Cats trip to Indy in 2018.
This season has seen Northwestern reach new highs in the College Football Playoff rankings, and things that used to be signs of a good season have become expected — such as winning the HAT. Competing for a Playoff spot might’ve been premature, and it takes a truly special season to make the CFP for all but maybe eight programs.
The ride to the end of the season is hardly going to be smooth, but in Evanston, the next few weeks can help to define Fitz’s new normal.