Preview 2017: Northwestern’s Big Shot At The Big Ten
Northwestern has the team and the schedule to come up with a special season in the Big Ten race.
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Is it even possible for Northwestern to win the Big Ten championship?
Since 1896, how many outright Big Ten titles does Northwestern have?
That’s a whole lot of football played for a very, very, very long time for just two undisputed championships.
Northwestern was the co-champion in five other seasons, but in the new world of the Big Ten Championship Game, the program can’t get away with that anymore. It’s not that the other titles weren’t earned, but there was one giant thing missing from the last three championships.
Lost in the fun of the 1995 run to the Rose Bowl under Gary Barnett was how the team got the massive break of missing Ohio State – and the bigger break of an upset by Michigan to keep the Buckeyes out of the Rose Bowl.
And that repeat co-Big Ten championship in 1996? Same thing – Northwestern partially pulled it off because it avoided an even better Ohio State team than the previous version – and it also gagged away a national title shot with a loss to Michigan in the regular season finale.
And guess who the Cats missed in 2000 when they rolled to a 9-3 record under Randy Walker. And guess who lost to Michigan in the final game of the regular season to make that happen.
Northwestern might have done its part to win those Big Ten titles – you can only play who’s on your schedule – but that can’t happen again.
If there’s ever going to be a championship coming under head coach Pat Fitzgerald – or anyone else – the Wildcats will need to pull off all the close wins they did in the other championship seasons, get all the breaks possible to overcome the talent gap, and then win one last game to finish it off.
There won’t be any avoiding Ohio State – or the team from the East good enough to get to get by the Buckeyes to play in Indianapolis.
But first, Northwestern has to win the West, and then deal with what comes next.
Maybe it can be Iowa of two years ago. Maybe it can be Penn State of last year, and find its way in before pulling off the championship win playing the right game on the right day.
Or maybe it’s Northwestern, and there’s a hard ceiling on just how good it can be and how far it can really go.
Okay, so Step One: the schedule. There’s no Ohio State on it in the regular season, and while the Cats have to play Michigan State, Maryland and Penn State from the East, the game against the Nittany Lions is in Evanston.
Facing Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road won’t be easy, but Iowa was able to do it two years ago on the way to a 12-0 regular season. With home games against the Hawkeyes and Minnesota – and a more-than-manageable non-conference slate – if the team really is good enough to think about a dream season and playing for a Big Ten championship, the schedule isn’t going to be an excuse if it doesn’t happen.
Step Two: have a team good enough to at least hang with everyone on that schedule.
Nine starters return to each side of the ball. The offense should be terrific, with a deep receiving corps overcoming the loss of all-star Austin Carr, and a rising pro prospect quarterback in Clayton Thorson to spread the wealth around.
The line was hit-or-miss throughout last year, but four starters return to pave the way for 1,500-yard back Justin Jackson and what should be an efficient ground game.
The defense loses the key pass rushing stars, and the linebacking corps is a concern with little depth and no more Anthony Walker, but line is deep and experienced, and the secondary should be past the problems of last year – mostly due to injuries – with everyone back on the two-deep.
And then it’ll be up to the team’s make-up and consistency. Last year’s team was good enough to beat Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl and push Ohio State in a tight loss, but it lost to Illinois State and only had one win in the regular season over a team that finished with a winning record.
In his 12th season at the helm, can Fitzgerald finally put it all together with an experienced team, a decent schedule, and just enough good pieces in place to go on a shocking run?
Yeah, right … whatever. It’s Northwestern.
And someday the Wildcat basketball team will make the NCAA Tournament, too.