The bright spotlight of prime-time football on ABC and the early a.m. wake-up call of ESPN's College GameDay will all descend upon Evanston, Ill. and the Northwestern Wildcats this weekend.
It has led to a lot of hype and hyperbole leading up to this game, you know...because that's what modern sports writing has become all about—hyperbole and sensationalism for the sake of readership and viewership.
So, while some are calling this the biggest game in the history of the modern era for Northwestern, we're going to explore a topic a bit closer to sanity: Is this the biggest game in the Pat Fitzgerald era of Northwestern football?
Amazingly, Fitz (as he's know affectionately around the NU program) is in his eighth season as the Northwestern head football coach. So, we have a bit of history to go through and explore.
For me, the pivotal season in Fitz's history at Northwestern was the 2009 season, one in which the team was an innocuous 8-5 and just 5-3 in Big Ten play.
So, why is it so pivotal to this era of Northwestern football? It was a season that would set the tone for everything else that has come after it.
Before the 2009 season, the Wildcats were a combined 1-7 against ranked opponents in the Fitzgerald era. However, after suffering a 34-13 beating by then-No. 12 Penn State to put Northwestern at 5-4 in the 2009 season and push his record against Top 25 teams to just 1-8, everything began to change.
The next week was a trip to No. 8 Iowa and Fitz's crew responded with a 17-10 win over the Hawkeyes.
It may have been seen as a fluke win at the time, but just a few weeks later the Wildcats took down No. 17 Wisconsin as well—the first time a Pat Fitzgerald-coached Northwestern team won multiple games against a ranked opponent in a single season.
So, one could argue the fateful day of October 31, 2009 was the day that changed the fortunes of the Pat Fitzgerald era for the better.
From that day forward, the Wildcats have had their share of W's over ranked opponents and, coming into this weekend, they are 5-6 since that 2009 season against those ranked opponents.
Not too shabby for little 'ole Northwestern, huh?
However, I would also submit to you the date of January 1, 2013 as one of huge significance in the Pat Fitzgerald era.
That is the day Northwestern took down No. 23 Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, breaking a streak of losing in bowl games that had lasted for 60-plus years (since the 1949 Rose Bowl, to be exact).
Chalk it up as another huge monkey off the back of Fitz and the program as a whole, or see it as a program-defining moment—either way, there's no denying it was a huge moment in the history of Northwestern football, let alone the Pat Fitzgerald era.
However, on Saturday night, all of those momentous occasions come to a head as the Wildcats are in a position to legitimately claim they belong on the same field and in the same class as the Ohio State Buckeyes, and that's not something to be taken lightly.
A win on Saturday puts Northwestern into the national conscious like it has never experienced before and its significance can't be denied.
However, calling it the biggest game in the Pat Fitzgerald era is a bit much for me, and here's why:
Win or lose on Saturday night, the Northwestern football season is far from over. Following this game are tests against Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State. There are still a ton of hurdles to climb over.
Even if Northwestern beats Ohio State, the only way the win becomes "the biggest in the Pat Fitzgerald era" is if the Wildcats are standing atop the podium hoisting the Big Ten Championship trophy in Indianapolis at the end of the season.
Otherwise, it will be just another win against a ranked opponent to put in the record books.
*Andy Coppens is the Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @andycoppens.
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