It’s safe to say that not many saw this Northwestern football season coming.
Just over a year ago, the Wildcats lost 41-3 to Illinois, wrapping up their 2022 campaign with an 11th straight loss and not a single win in the United States. Pat Fitzgerald’s program had nowhere to go but up.
Yet, somehow, it went down. Hazing allegations around the program engulfed the summer, ultimately leading to Fitzgerald’s firing. The dark days around the squad made it seem near-impossible for the Wildcats to have a successful season in 2023. As I wrote in July, the future was grim for the Northwestern football team.
Enter: interim head coach David Braun.
We know the rest. Braun is no longer the interim head coach. Northwestern finally won a game in the United States after over 700 days, and it won seven of them. After going 1-11 in 2022 and losing top players in Peter Skoronski, Evan Hull and Cam Mitchell, to name a few, Northwestern finished with a winning record, securing bowl eligibility for the first time in three years. As captain Bryce Gallagher promised after the season-opening loss to Rutgers, the ‘Cats did, in fact, go on to have a “successful season.”
Still, NU can prove so much more on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah, both as a statement for the 2023 team and the football program in general. A win would go miles for the Wildcats, who nobody thought would come close to touching a bowl game.
Let’s start with the short-term implications of a win versus the Utes.
First, this is going to be one of the toughest opponents Northwestern has played this year. Utah is a strong PAC-12 (soon to be Big 12) team, sitting at 8-4, with all of their losses coming against ranked opponents. It took No. 2 Washington, who is now playing in the College Football Playoff, down to the wire in Seattle. The Utes beat one of the best quarterbacks in the country and the potential first overall draft pick, Caleb Williams, in Los Angeles. The most impressive thing is Utah spent the entire season without its star quarterback in Cam Rising, who did not play this season due to a torn ACL.
Before this season, Utah was the two-time defending PAC-12 champions, beating Oregon in 2021 and USC in 2022. It made the PAC-12 Championship in 2020 and was on the border of making the College Football Playoff that year. The Utes have been one of the top college football programs for the past few years, and what Kyle Whittingham has done for the program has been special. Additionally, Rising returns to Salt Lake City next year as Utah shifts over to the Big 12, giving it a real chance to win the conference.
So what would a Northwestern win over this program mean for the 2023 team? To start, it means that this season was not a fluke. Utah’s success over the past few seasons has come from talented players, great coaching and a team that sticks together. If Northwestern can beat this unit, a program that has seen nearly everything over the past half-decade, it shows what the Wildcats did in 2023 is real.
Moreover, Northwestern deserves to play a top program like Utah. The ‘Cats were a last-minute field goal away from traveling down the road to Indianapolis to play the No. 1 team in the country in Michigan; no matter what would have happened in that game, getting there is an accomplishment in itself. A win against a Utah team would show that Northwestern can play with some of the nation’s top dogs. It would also be some nice hardware — the HAT is already back in Evanston, and a bowl trophy right next to it would make the 2023 season one that will be hard to forget.
It would also set the slate for the 2024 season. Northwestern has one of the hardest schedules in the country next year, featuring games against Michigan, Ohio State and Washington — all of whom should be top-six teams heading into the preseason — a reloaded Duke squad with Manny Diaz and a contest against a Miami (Ohio) team that just went 11-2. Winning against the Utes would give many the belief that Northwestern can compete in some of these games. The path to a bowl game is there next season, and a win in the Las Vegas Bowl would make this more believable.
Even more than what’s on the 2024 horizon, a victory against Utah would have major long-term implications for Northwestern football for years to come.
The college football slate is going to be completely different next year. The Big Ten is welcoming Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA. Plenty of national championship contenders are in the conference; Michigan and Washington are both in the playoff this season and Ohio State and Oregon missed out because of losses to the Wolverines and Huskies, respectively. Throw in Penn State and USC, programs that have the talent to make the playoff, and it is clear there is star power in the conference. The College Football Playoff will have 12 teams, meaning that there will be tons of Big Ten teams vying for spots and some of them will be mainstays. If Northwestern wants to “get purple to the College Football Playoff,” as Braun said, a win against Utah will launch this trajectory.
To put it into perspective, a bowl game win is big for any program. It means a lot to the players, who work their tails off throughout the season to have an opportunity to compete in late December. It’s a testament to their willingness to buy into a program. But to get a bowl win against a Utah team that has had recent success, all in Braun’s first year? It would go miles for the ‘Cats, especially with all they have been through recently.
Even if Northwestern loses, the impact the 2023 team has had on Northwestern football is massive. There’s not one program in the nation that experienced this type of turnaround this year, and a bowl win against a successful program in Utah would be the cherry on top.
Now attention shifts to Saturday to see if the Wildcats can get it done.