Reader, I want you to take a journey with me. Imagine a walk along the Lakefill on Northwestern’s campus, or maybe down one of the beaches on Lakeshore Drive. You’ve just had some delicious Chicago-style pizza, the Cubs just beat the Pirates to take the lead in the NL Central, and the temperature remains in the 70s despite the sun beginning to set. In short, everything is going right for you, and everyone else in the Chicagoland area.
What does that mean for Northwestern football? A year ago, I would have said something like an 8-4 record and Big Ten West contention. Three months ago, I would have said a trip to a bowl game this season would be an unmitigated success. But after all the chaos of this summer, I think I’ve come up with an answer.
The best possible success for Northwestern football would be a return to normalcy.
But what does normalcy look like for Northwestern football? Exactly 375 days ago, Daniel Olinger published a story on this website detailing what “normal” used to be for Northwestern.
In that story, he noted that under Fitzgerald, Northwestern was always winning, but never winning big. The mark of 7.5 wins per year from 2007 to 2017 was stellar for a program with a history as thin as Northwestern’s, but certainly not good enough for contention in the Big Ten.
Then 2018 hit, and everything went topsy-turvy. Since 2017, a wildly impressive 10-3 run, Northwestern’s year-by-year results have been a roller coaster.
In 2018, Northwestern won the Big Ten West for the first time in program history. In 2019, the ‘Cats went 3-9. In 2020, Northwestern won the Big Ten West for the second time in program history. In 2021, the ‘Cats went 3-9.
Of course, that meant 2022 would be another division title, right? Extremely wrong. Just two of our staffers predicted a winning record, and even their predictions were filled to the brim with either blind optimism or outright confusion. In the end, the duo was too optimistic.
There’s no point in re-opening the old wounds of the 2022 season, so I won’t do that here. What I will say is that even if you ignore the hazing scandal, Northwestern lost its four best players to the NFL Draft and another 11 players to the transfer portal. And all that production departed from a team that lost to an FCS squad at home.
This year, our staff did not drink the Kool-Aid whatsoever. Not a single staffer projected a winning record, and just one predicted that Northwestern would win more than three times this fall. Admittedly, this is an extremely bleak outlook on the season. But the up-and-down of the late 2010s simply wasn’t sustainable. Especially with a new coach, what’s really needed is consistency and meeting expectations.
Luckily for this year’s team, those expectations are basically nonexistent. According to ESPN, Northwestern is a 6.5-point underdog at Rutgers this Sunday, and while the odds for the whole season haven’t been released yet, it’s safe to say Northwestern will be favored in just two. Those games, both home affairs against UTEP and Howard, are by far the easiest games on the schedule. UTEP is a bottom 25 team in basically every major metric, and Howard is an FCS team.
Admittedly, Northwestern has shown its problems with both FCS and non-power schools, even when the games are at Ryan Field. But remember, everything’s going right for the Chicago area in this journey, so that means Northwestern wins both.
Other than that...it’s not ideal. The two games Northwestern is most likely to win outside of the aforementioned contests are Rutgers and Purdue. The Wildcats could win both of those games — all it would take is whoever the starting quarterback is (hopefully Ben Bryant) to outduel an anemic Rutgers offense and a retooling ‘Cats defense forcing Purdue transfer Hudson Card into a few mistakes.
Aside from those four games, though, it’s difficult to project a win, mainly because of how tough this schedule is. According to KFORD Ratings, Northwestern is facing the fourth-toughest slate of opposing defenses this year. That includes matchups with No. 10 Minnesota, No. 5 Penn State, No. 1 Iowa, and No. 6 Illinois.
As you can also see on that graphic, there’s a 64% chance Northwestern wins four or more games. Anything after that is a long shot, especially with Northwestern likely being double-digit underdogs in seven games. They are probably the worst team in the conference, and if they can’t beat Purdue at home, they’ll almost certainly finish at the bottom of the Big Ten West for the third consecutive season.
However, this season isn’t about wins and losses. It stopped being about that in July when the hazing scandal broke. This team could go 0-12, and it would not matter. This team could go 6-6, and it would not matter. The goal this year is fixing the soul of this program, which had its wounds revealed after the revelations of this summer. Those wounds dated from well before the roller coaster ride began in 2018.
David Braun, as a program outsider, has the chance to fix that now. If he is able to ensure that the elements of the program that led to the hazing are wiped away, then the season will be an unmitigated success. Whatever his long-term goals might be, his short-term goal should be to create a culture that the fans can support and be proud of. If everything’s going right for the Chicago area, that also means that Northwestern football is doing everything right, both on and off the field. And no record (good or bad) matters more than that.