Big Ten: Northwestern
How do you go back to setting the bar at merely going bowling after you’ve seen what life is like in the Big Ten Championship?
Northwestern was good. It managed to get the job done against a solid Utah team in the Holiday Bowl – and Utah never loses bowl games under head coach Kyle Whittingham – and it did what it needed to do to win the Big Ten West and get its cut at Ohio State with the Rose Bowl on the line.
And this year’s team should be even better.
Hunter Johnson should grow into a quarterback upgrade over Clayton Thorson. The rest of the skill parts are in place, the defensive front is going to be a force, and the back seven will be a major plus. There’s a harsh reality, though. There was a reason the Wildcats won the West besides being good.
Yes, under Pat Fitzgerald, the program finds ways to win close battles, but it took too much of a fight to get by Rutgers, the Cats survived Iowa and Illinois, and …
They’re not likely to win all of the tight games again.
Wisconsin was off when it came to Evanston – it wasn’t the same after losing QB Alex Hornibrook. Nebraska choked in its loss, and now it’s better. Purdue choked in it’s loss, and now it’s better.
Northwestern isn’t going to the College Football Playoff, so losing at Stanford to start the season wouldn’t be a big deal, but to get back to the Big Ten title game, it’ll have to survive a schedule with road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska along with home games against Michigan State and Ohio State.
There can’t be mistakes at home against Iowa or Minnesota, and there can’t be a misfire on the road against Indiana or against – gulp – Illinois.
No, the Cats aren’t going to get through the Big Ten season with just one loss again.