It was not so long ago that all of us, for once, were ready to take Northwestern seriously as a football program and a potential multi-year contender in the Big Ten.
Specifically, that seemed to be the consensus at the start of last season, when Northwestern was coming off a 10-win campaign and its first bowl victory since the Truman Administration, and it was ranked No. 22 in the country in both major preseason polls.
What happened in between makes the dissonance separating last year's June opinion of Northwestern and this year's June opinion of Northwestern understandable. Pat Fitzgerald's team was not able to profit from that momentum, losing seven consecutive games during Big Ten play and not qualifying for the postseason despite a 4-0 start.
However, even with the graduation of quarterback Kain Colter and the sure-to-be-distraction of the union talks he has spearheaded, there are signs indicating Northwestern can bounce back and compete for a Big Ten title—and that it can do so as early next season.
It happened with Michigan State last year, didn't it?
Welcome to the Big Ten West!
This is the shortest but most important section of this article.
It feels like the right place to start.
Northwestern has the good fortune of being located in Evanston, Illinois, which itself has the good fortune of being located west of Bloomington, Indiana.
Which means the Wildcats are not in the newly formed Big Ten East—the division that includes Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan. Instead, they find themselves in the opposite division, the West, which includes (chiefly) Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa.
With #NoDisrespect to those programs, Northwestern has a real, better-than-people-realize chance of winning this division. That holds doubly true when you consider its cross-division schedule, which does not include the Buckeyes or the Spartans.
That sounds a lot like a certain 2013 Big Ten Champion—those very same Spartans—who got to avoid Ohio State and Wisconsin. Without having to play the two best teams in the conference (sans itself), Michigan State won every Big Ten game by double digits.
Nebraska has to play Michigan State in East Lansing, Wisconsin in Madison, Northwestern in Evanston and Iowa in Iowa City. Wisconsin and Iowa both also avoid Michigan State and Ohio State, but the Badgers play Northwestern in Evanston, and the Hawkeyes have lost four of their last six and six of their last nine to the Wildcats.
Northwestern may never be as good, technically, as last year's Rose Bowl Champion, but it will not have to be to win its division.
What it needs is something far saner: to be good enough in crunch time to win close games over opponents that are—as we'll discover later—essentially evenly matched.
It needs to get lucky in those late-game situations, but so does every team that wants to win its conference in 2014.
If only there was a sign that it was in for improved luck…
Close-Game Progression to the Mean
Late-game failure defined Northwestern's 2013 season.
Not long after a deceptively close, soul-crushing, College Gameday-featured loss to Ohio State, the Wildcats lost four straight one-score Big Ten games against Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan.
The last two of that group were particularly heart-rending. Nebraska beat Northwestern with a "Hail Mary" as time expired:
And Michigan beat Northwestern with an aptly-nicknamed "Turbo Field Goal" to send the game into overtime:
A win in either of those games would have made Northwestern bowl-eligible and likely would have sent it to the postseason.
Which is redolent of what Michigan State did in 2012—one season before it won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Sparty didn't win its sixth game until the regular-season finale against Minnesota that year, owing its poor record to a similar deficiency in one-score games:
|2012 Mich. St. vs. 2013 Northwestern: One-Score Big Ten Games|
|2012 Michigan State||2013 Northwestern|
|Ohio St. 17, Michigan St. 16 (L)||Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30 (L)*|
|Michigan St. 31, Indiana 27 (W)||Minnesota 20, Northwestern 17 (L)|
|Iowa 19, Michigan St. 16 (L)||Iowa 17, Northwestern 10 (L)|
|Michigan 12, Michigan St. 10 (L)||Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24 (L)|
|Michigan St. 19, Wisconsin 16 (W)||Michigan 27, Northwestern 19 (L)|
|Nebraska 28, Michigan St. 24 (L)||Northwestern 37, Illinois 34 (W)|
|Northwestern 23, Michigan St. 20 (L)|
|One-Score B1G Record: 2-5||One-Score B1G Record: 1-5|
(Note: I'm going to count Ohio State's 10-point victory as a one-score game because the Buckeyes scored a defensive touchdown on the pointless final play [and sent Brent Musberger into a gambling tizzy]. If you want to accuse me of gerrymandering the numbers, so be it. I stand by the decision.)
Success in one-score games takes a decent amount of skill; it is not entirely luck. It is, however, a trapping of luck, which is why it tends to normalize from season to season.
Teams that struggle in close games one year are statistically favored to progress toward the mean the following year. Which is why Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, writing for ESPN.com (subscription required), projected MSU would win the Big Ten Legends last year in August:
According to our data, Michigan State had unusual luck work against it in close games and played more like a nine-win team last season than a seven-win one. That works in its favor in the projection model, as events like turnovers and close-game success tend to even out over time.
According to Fremeau's model, Northwestern didn't play like a nine-win team in 2013 the same way Michigan State did in 2012. It finished last year No. 60 in the country with an FEI score of 0.11, while Sparty finished 2012 No. 23 with an FEI score of .142.
However, those numbers only account for what a team did on the field, disregarding off-field factors such as injury luck. Injuries are another thing that normalize from year to year, and Northwestern was among the most-injured teams in America last season.
Injuries are bad, obviously, for the short term, but they have a hidden benefit over the long term: cultivating depth. Northwestern played a lot of guys last year who would otherwise be untested.
Which reminds me…
Talented, Experienced and Well-Coached
In the well-known magazine that bears his name, Phil Steele's 2014 College Football Preview, Phil Steele ranks Northwestern the No. 27 team in the country and the second-best team in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin checks in just three spots ahead at No. 24, with Nebraska and Iowa not far behind at No. 30 and No. 32, respectively.
Steele's magazine also makes note of the 14 senior starters returning to Northwestern next season—second-most in the country (behind UTSA) and most among teams from power conferences. Because of this, he lists the Wildcats No. 3 behind TCU and Florida on his annual projection of most-improved teams from one season to the next.
Last year, Missouri, Duke and Auburn all appeared on that list.
Steele's predictions are not gospel—he did, in the interest of full disclosure, think Texas would win the Big 12 last year—but they represent a partial confirmation of the point this article is trying to make: Northwestern is being overlooked for one bad (and unlucky) season and has a truckload of experience returning.
So much experience that it can't not be better in 2014.
The key returning piece is running back Venric Mark, who was one of the best players in the country two seasons ago and was granted a sixth-year due to medical hardship after missing most of last season with a fractured ankle, per Chris Huston of College Football Talk.
He is not over-exerting himself to a perilous degree—he is simply ahead of schedule.
Mark will be running behind an offensive line that returns 100 career starts, according to Steele's College Football Preview. Trevor Siemien returns at quarterback after platooning with Colter for much of the past two seasons, and so do four of last year's five leading receivers.
The secondary is deep and talented, and although there are questions in the defensive front seven, that unit is led, at the very least, by Chi Chi Ariguzo, who might be best linebacker in the Big Ten.
More importantly, the unit is led by Fitzgerald, who at this time last year was being mentioned for some of the top potential coaching vacancies in the country. A Northwestern lifer who won the first two Chuck Bednarik Awards in 1995 and 1996, Fitz is a former linebacker and born leader who can shape this defense into a viable unit.
And the smart money says that he will.
The Elephant in the Room
Let's pause now for a lengthy, nuanced discussion about labor reform in college athletics!
[everybody reading this article shuffles slowly out of the room.]
OK. I digress.
We won't get into the nitty gritty of Colter's petition to the National Labor Relations Board, which granted Northwestern players the right to unionize as employees of the university—but only if they want to be acknowledged as such.
Just know that the story exists. And that it's big. And that, for obvious reasons, it's expected to cast a dark cloud over Northwestern's season, to serve as a ruinous distraction.
But what if the opposite happens?
What if, by some chance, this veteran-laded team can turn the odds against it into a positive? Grantland's Bill Simmons has referred to this as the "nobody believes in us" theory, and it is something Northwestern's players are used to.
They are, after all, at Northwestern.
"At the end of the day…everything outside of our locker room is outside of our locker room," said Mark of the potential for union distraction, per Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com. "…Now it's time to get back to work. We have a job here, and we understand that."
"Kain's no longer on this football team."
Mark is right, you know. Colter is very much gone. But with himself, Fitzgerald and a whole slew of seniors returning, the presence of leadership is not. Between that, a favorable schedule, a winnable division and the potential for better close-game luck, this team is lurking in the weeds for a run to the Big Ten title game.
And from there, well, anything can happen in 60 minutes.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT