What should you expect as a Northwestern football fan?
I know the tempting one word response is “pain,” but hold off on that admittedly satisfying punchline for the time being.
For years under Pat Fitzgerald, the answer was, “good, but not great.” Following his understandably difficult first year as head coach in Evanston, Fitz’s teams won 83 games over the next 11 seasons, which averages right out at 7.5 wins per season. For a program that once celebrated tying the longest losing streak in CFB history by laking its posts, consistently posting seasons above .500 was a major success.
Then something out of the ordinary happened — Northwestern won the Big Ten West. Sure, the Wildcats evened things out with home losses to Duke and Akron in the same calendar year, but it was perfectly reasonable for fans to believe that was a breakthrough moment for the ‘Cats. The team itself sure did, placing a spot for their eventual Big Ten Champion trophy right next to West Division crown in the awards display outside its indoor practice field.
You all know what happens next. Cue the somber music of the 2019 football season.
Hopes NU’s purple reign of terror over the West division were quickly quelled, and expectations for 2020 plummeted, so naturally Fitz and Co. responded by producing the best team of his entire tenure and winning the West yet again before capping it off with a demolition of Auburn in the Citrus Bowl to finish the season as a top-ten ranked team for the first time since the legendary season of ‘95.
Many expected a drop-off in 2021. The 2020 ‘Cats were laden with seniors at every position on the defense, not to mention that year served as the swan song for the one and only Mike Hankwitz, who time and again proved himself as a top defensive coordinator in the sport. But to regress back to 3-9 and get outscored by a whopping 23 points per game throughout the final six games of the season? That was a real vibe killer.
So what is success for Northwestern in 2022? Basic pattern recognition would suggest another West title is in store. Most national prognosticators suggest another round of 3-9 to soothe the soul.
Success, to me, is getting back to the consistency of old. It’s getting back near that 7.5 win-average, because the West Division title belt won’t be returning to Evanston any time soon.
While the final records read the same, the 2021 season provided a far more dismal outlook than the 2019 campaign. Whereas the ‘19 squad only had one hole in its boat known as the quarterback position, the ‘21 team had so many to plug that abandoning ship would have been a much better plan.
To better show this, I’m going to use Defensive Fremeau Efficiency Index, or DFEI for short, a measurement tool courtesy of Football Outsiders. A succinct explanation (as provided to me by the wonderful J.P. Acosta) is that DFEI, “is a metric that measures how much of a point per possession advantage a team has over their opponent at a neutral site, or said another way, in a controlled environment, how many points do they save?”
Here’s how the 2019 Northwestern defense graded out in the landscape of D-I football:
Coming in at 28th in DFEI, the Northwestern defense in 2019 was still plenty good, and the sole reason as to why NU was able to stay competitive in matches against teams such as Stanford, Nebraska and Wisconsin. And this was proved true in 2020, when the Wildcats vaulted up to first in the entire nation in DFEI.
It should never be taken for granted how sensational that defense was. Going nine straight games without ever surrendering 30 points in modern football is an unbelievable feat, even in the ground-and-pound Big Ten. It’s also what made the monumental downfall in 2021 all the more concerning.
In the fall of 2021, Northwestern fell all the way to 103rd in DFEI and surrendered well over 30 points in all but four of its 12 games. The 2019 team actually had the shell of a halfway decent team. The defense was legit, the skill position players had just enough juice and the offensive line still had Rashawn Slater mauling fools for fun on every snap. It was just held back by Aiden Smith’s quarterback play resembling whack-a-mole with the dirt more than it did actual football.
The 2021 team’s offense — though very bad — still had its moments of competence. Ryan Hilinski could complete a curl route, Evan Hull is an above average tailback and the offense as a whole always put together at least one touchdown drive each Saturday afternoon. But just being normal bad instead of Aiden-Smith-at-QB-bad didn’t matter when the defense had finally fallen off a cliff post-Hankwitz. All Fitz had to do to right the ship two years ago was grab Peyton Ramsey from the transfer portal. The 2022 team possesses no such easy paths.
That’s why anything that looks like one of those six of seven-win seasons from the heart of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure would be a major success. That falls just short of that 7.5 average I mentioned earlier (though if anyone could ever find a way to win half of a game, it’s Northwestern), but this is about building the program back up after last year left nothing but loose nuts and bolts.
Southern Illinois should be a guaranteed win. Duke and Miami-Ohio are definitely losable given Northwestern’s shaky track record against the two, but for optimism’s sake, count those as wins. From there, the ‘Cats would need to snipe three of Nebraska, Minnesota, Maryland, Iowa, Purdue or Illinois to reach .500, which doesn’t sound impossible when putting pen to paper.
It would require a lot. Expecting the defense to vault back into the ranks of the elite is a lot to ask especially considering it just lost its best player in Brandon Joseph, so anything middling is probably a step in the right direction. As for the offense, it’s hard to believe Hilinski has much more to give considering he’s been in a CFB for a solid while now and has roughly two seasons showing he’s probably not the greatest pass-thrower out there. That leaves the much-hyped Brendan Sullivan as the ‘Cats’ best chance at success. While he’s a complete unknown, it’s more likely NU finds something to push it another step forward in him than it is with Hilinski.
None of this sounds too enthusiastic or jovial. That’s sadly the position the Wildcats are in after the bottom fell out last year. But with a much more experienced defense, a hopeful upgrade at the quarterback position and a few trademark disgusting wins at Ryan Field, a 6-6 season with a competitive bowl game to cap is well within reach for the Northwestern, and something that the both the ‘Cats and their fans should aspire to this fall.