Northwestern football has reached new heights over the last two seasons. They're hungry for more, and have the talent to get there.
In 2012, Northwestern football had their best season in over 15 years. A 5-0 start earned the Wildcats the #24 ranking. Later in the season they nearly knocked off Michigan on the road but did win at Michigan State the following week. After a 50-14 trashing of Illinois in the last week of the season, Northwestern had the #21 ranking heading into the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State. They won that one 34-20 for their first bowl victory since 1948.
All of this momentum brought in high hopes for 2013. And early on, they didn't disappoint. Behind an explosive offense they knocked off California, Syracuse, Western Michigan, and Maine to earn the #16 ranking before a hugely pivotal matchup at home against #4 Ohio State that could shake the Big Ten top to bottom.
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A national ABC audience was watching one of the biggest games in 121 years of Northwestern football. Sure enough, the purple and black came out scoring and led 20-13 at halftime and 23-20 after the third quarter. Unfortunately running back Carlos Hyde's 168-yard day led OSU to a 40-30 victory in the end. The Wildcats were unable to recapture their early-season swagger after that disappointing loss, losing their next seven games to lose bowl eligibility. This time Michigan State beat them in Evanston 30-6.
It was a hugely up-and-then-down season for Northwestern, but the bar for Wildcat success was instantly raised to a new level. If even just for a few weeks, Northwestern was up there with the best teams in the nation and was a serious contender in the Big Ten. With increased experience and a better recruiting class, many signs point to Northwestern seeing more of that kind of success in the near future.
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Quality recruits want to play for programs that will advance their own professional career, under tutelage of the coaching staff and collaboration with teammates, to put themselves in the best position to make the NFL, and they want to win. Other factors like proximity to home or a 'cool' brand (aka, the reason so many programs come out with wild, headline-grabbing uniforms every few years) depend on the athlete, but Northwestern is making progress is almost all those departments.
Recruits are college football fans before they play in college, so you can bet they liked what they saw at the Ohio State game last year. NU has five four-star recruits coming in this fall, three of them from the Chicago suburbs. Cornerback Parrker Westphal, quarterback Clayton Thorson, tight end Garrett Dickerson, running back Justin Jackson, and running back Solomon Vault should anchor the team in upcoming years. Eight three-star recruits come after that.
The 'Cats return a talented team as well. Offensive starters in the entire offensive line, quarterback Trevor Siemian, running back Venric Mark, Treyvon Green, Christian Jones, Dan Vitale, and Tony Jones will be back. Matt Alviti, a 2013 four-star quarterback redshirted last season, could unseat Siemian eventually. It's important to note NU still has coach Pat Fitzgerald, former Wildcat himself entering his ninth year as coach and one of the most respected in Division I for turning around a program that was a laughing stock for decades--hence the 64 year gap between bowl game victories.
Photo Source: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast
The first three weeks of the season will see home games against California, Northern Illinois, and Western Illinois, games that Northwestern should be able to win. The Big Ten schedule gets pretty tough after that, with road games at Penn State, Minnesota, and Iowa and home games against Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan. Then a road game at Notre Dame. But if they can make it through those first 10 games with at least four to five wins, they'll be in good shape for bowl eligibility with a road game at Purdue and home game against Illinois to close out the season.
Northwestern's football program has been places in the last two years it never has been. Historically it hasn't been a football powerhouse, but they achieved national prominence for some time. It's not hard to argue that they can get right back there in 2014.