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Bad seasons will happen, but they shouldn’t happen like this

A final note on a horrible, no-good, very bad season.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

“It sucks that they are not better, and it sucks that they suck this much.”

No, that was not said by Pat Fitzgerald is his postgame presser, nor was it said by any of Northwestern’s players following their 47-14 demolition suffered at the hands of Illinois. That was said by Spencer Hall, co-host of the Shutdown Fullcast and the Fullcast After Dark, the internet’s supreme college football podcast, according to many (myself included).

And no, that was not said in reference to Northwestern. It was instead used to describe Georgia Tech after the Yellow Jackets got shellacked 55-0 by Notre Dame. But watching the ‘Cats get absolutely torn to pieces by an objectively bad Illinois team today, I just could not get the line out of my head.

Everyone who has invested any amount of time and energy into Northwestern football this season knows that it sucked, but the continual realization of just how deep the ‘Cats were in the well of suck was the true dagger.

Northwestern football has been awful before (see nearly every season before 1995). Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald has also been awful before, but even in those years there was an olive branch of hope and joy to grab on too. The 4-8 squad of 2006 got to close the season winning two out of three and upsetting hated rivals in Illinois and Iowa. The consecutive 5-7 seasons of ‘13 and ‘14 at least gave NU fans reason to unleash evil laughs as the team seemingly lost every close game and fell victim to too many bad breaks to count. Even 2019, the year we’ve referenced so often on this site, closed with the Marty Massacre of an already bowl-eligible Illinois, reminding Northwestern fans that this program was far from a pushover.

The 2021 Northwestern football team was not that. In fact, it was the exact opposite, as the ‘Cats staggered to a 3-3 start, tricked fans into thinking that some problems had been fixed with a win over Rutgers that becomes more befuddling by the day, only to lose the final six games and get outscored by a combined 137 points. It’s like if Sisyphus had tripped on his way up the hill and gotten repeatedly flattened by the boulder on the way back down. They did not improve and they did not get better.

“Today was a microcosm of the season,” said Fitzgerald, clearly dejected in the wake of his team’s dreadful performance.

A lot of Northwestern fans were frustrated with the long time coach seemingly ducking hard questions throughout the team’s fall, but his words here ring true.

The 33-point loss to a 5-7 Illinois squad was the best representation of this ‘Cats’ season because it was entirely meaningless and lacking in entertainment. Northwestern got rinsed in every facet of the game save for runs from 1,000-yard back Evan Hull, was clearly doomed by the end of the first quarter and caused most fans to change the channel less than an hour into the proceedings. Same with the season — it started poorly, it became obvious that improvement was off the table and all interest was lost, save for a few holdouts.

So that all points to one big question for Northwestern and all of its fans — what now?

Everyone loves to point to last season as evidence that the sky isn’t falling just because NU went 3-9 immediately before, and while that argument holds weight, it’s relying on things that already happened to fix the glaring and intimidating problems facing the team in the near future.

Who is going to be Northwestern’s quarterback next year? Why is this team so hard to predict year-to-year? Is the defense ever going to return to the same dominant level it achieved in years such as 2015, 2017 and 2020?

All of these questions remain unanswered, making this truly a wasted year. In 2019, everyone Northwestern fan knew by the season’s end that a) the defense was still an above-average unit capable of winning games and b) literally any other pairing of quarterback + offensive coordinator would yield massive improvements. That same good defense was still there in 2020, Peyton Ramsey and Mike Bajakian made their way to Evanston, and out popped a dream season for the program.

What easy fixes are there for the ‘Cats as they enter 2022? Unless another Peyton Ramsey and faster linebackers stroll into E-Town this summer, next year’s team will just be an older, slightly not-as-terrible version of the team we all just saw finish with only a single win over another Power Five opponent.

For the last three years, Northwestern has gone from being unable to catch a single luck break, to catching all of them and winning a game on New Year’s Day, to just being bad for bad’s sake. The seasonal outcomes are likely the most extreme ends of the spectrum, with the true representation of this program lying toward the middle — a below-average Power Five team that should average 5-6 wins a year. That’s better than what Northwestern used to be, sure, but most had hoped that winning two West division crowns meant you could write the ‘Cats in the “good” tier and not worry about having to erase it later on.

Every rational fan expected a step back from Fitzgerald and Company in 2021. Some raised the thought that this team could, in fact, be quite bad, which should happen to every CFB program, save for a sacred few.

But to suck this much is something else. This was the kind of the season that just shouldn’t have happened, and yet it did, leaving every Northwestern fan and follower with the worrying feeling of how likely it might be to happen again.