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With its second division title in three years, Northwestern puts the Big Ten West on notice

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One? Okay, fine. Two? They might be onto something.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A wise backup quarterback for the New York Giants once said, “You want to be a champion? You win the West. Every game in the West you gotta win.”

Despite starting 1-3 and suffering some disappointing nonconference losses, that somewhat inexplicable 2018 season crowned Northwestern champion of the Big Ten West for the first time in the history of the East-West Division era.

Following a 45-24 defeat to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wildcats left Indianapolis seeking a new normal.

It would have been easy to call that season a fluke. There were enough weird things that happened to make you question if they could win the division again.

2019 certainly didn’t help. If 2018 was a fluke, the following year was the expected flop. The regression well past the mean dropped Northwestern (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten) to the conference cellar: a familiar narrative, but not one that’s backed up by the statistics — at least not in the past half-decade.

After such a down year, 2020 was bound to provide a regression back to the mean. And for Pat Fitzgerald and co., the mean has been upper echelon of the West Division, little brother to Wisconsin. It’s easy to get lost behind the Badgers, who have been such a boring beacon of high-level consistency, and that’s exactly what has happened to the Wildcats.

Now with two West championships in three years, Northwestern (5-1) has reaffirmed to both itself and the rest of the division that it isn’t going anywhere. NU might not yet be a national brand and still might not get the respect it should from its yearly foes, but it has staked its claim as a tough regional challenger.

“We can play,” said senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. “Sometimes Northwestern is portrayed this way or that way, having these type of athletes or those type of athletes, but at the end of the day we’re coming to play, we’re coming to win the West, we’re coming to win a Big Ten Championship.

Pat Fitzgerald has laid out reasonable goals for his program in the form of building blocks. The foundation is winning the West. More often than not, the ‘Cats are in the mix.

Since 2015 — including this season — Northwestern (71%) ranks behind only Wisconsin (81%) in divisional winning percentage. In those six years, NU has won the division twice, finished second twice, tied for third once and then placed last once as well.

In typical Northwestern fashion, many people focused on the weird formalities that clinched the division title for the Wildcats and not what got them to this position.

Of course, after its disappointing loss to Michigan State, the brief national spotlight on Evanston has dimmed. But with a win over Illinois this Saturday, NU can sweep its West schedule for the second time in three years, and the seniors know this program has taken a large, if not symbolic step, during their careers in Evanston. Say what you want about the program on a national level, but it’s good at winning in its division.

“We’re legitimate contenders,” said senior safety JR Pace. “We’re not the Northwestern of the past. People are opening up their eyes and recognizing that we can play football and we can do it at a pretty high level. We are legitimate contenders and going forward hopefully we can keep it going for the years to come.”

NU is now one of just four teams to make the Big Ten Championship Game multiple times since its inception. It’s hard to prove legitimacy without hardware, and the trophy case at Ryan Fieldhouse just got a little bit tighter.

The Fitz mindset is to focus on only the micro. He deflected any questions about the program’s standing with another division title, but the ramifications are significant. Another trip to Indy washes the bitter taste of 2019 out of the program’s mouth and is about as good as a revisionist history that conveniently leaves out any mention of 3-9 Northwestern.

The job may never feel over for Pat Fitzgerald until he wins a Big Ten Championship coaching his alma mater. For now, though, the program has acknowledged where it’s at, and that’s being one of the best teams in the West.

“It’s been a great ride winning two Big Ten West championships, and being able to play for the chip twice is unheard of around here,” said Pace. “Just to be a part of that is special.”