Northwestern is the Big Ten's little engine that could.
It faces overwhelming odds when put against the conference's other football programs.
Firstly, it is the only private institution in the conference.
Secondly, with an undergraduate enrollment of 8,425 (2010-11 school year), its population is less than half the Big Ten's second smallest school (Iowa).
Thirdly, it has no history, tradition or prestige. In fact, the first thing most casual football fans think of when they think of Northwestern football is its 34-game losing streak from 1979-1982.
Finally, unlike other Big Ten institutions of higher learning, Northwestern has strict academic requirements for its football recruits, and it actually does hold its student athletes to "a standard of academic excellence."
I am in no way coming down on the modern "student-athlete," but adherence to a strict code does stack the deck against a football program like Northwestern.
Nevertheless, compete is exactly what Northwestern does.
Despite the odds, NU has made a bowl each of the last four seasons. Unlike Indiana, one of its Big Ten brethren, NU has been competitive and stable over the last two decades.
2011 Record: 6-7
2011 Conference Record: 3-5
2011 Home/Away/Neutral Record: 3-3/3-3/0-1
2011 Record vs. Ranked Teams: 1-2
Record Last Five Seasons: 36-28 (tied for 48th in country over that period of time)
Conference Record Last Five Seasons: 19-21
Home/Away/Neutral Record Last Five Seasons: 19-12/16-11/1-5
Record vs. Ranked Teams Last Five Seasons: 4-11
Best Record Last Five Seasons: 9-4 (2008)
Worst Record Last Five Seasons: 6-6 (2007) and 6-7 (2011)
Number of coaches last 10 seasons: Two
Pat Fitzgerald will enter his sixth season as head coach of the Wildcats.
Fitzgerald was a standout linebacker for Northwestern between 1993-1996. As a collegiate athlete, he was a two-time All-American, Nagurski Trophy winner, Bednarik Award winner and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
He was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
After a one-year stint in the NFL, Fitzgerald coached linebackers at Maryland, Colorado and Idaho, before coming back to Evanston in 2001.
He was the Wildcat linebacker coach for five years before ascending to the head coaching position with the untimely death of his former boss, Randy Walker.
He has compiled a career record of 40-36. His Big Ten record is 21-27. His bowl record is 0-4.
Fitzgerald was rumored to be a favorite for the Michigan job that ultimately went to Brady Hoke, but he has made it clear that he wants to be the head coach in Evanston.
It is arguable whether he is the best coach in the conference. It is arguable whether he does the most with the least. It is arguable whether he could succeed at a blue-blood institution like Michigan.
It is inarguable that he is the safest and most beloved coach in the Big Ten at his respective institution.
Coming next Wednesday, an overview and breakdown of Northwestern's offense.