Few teams have been as historically bad as Northwestern. However, over the last two decades, the Wildcats have made a concerted effort to improve their stature not only in one of the most respected football conferences, but in the national outlook as well.
In 1994, NU went just 3-7-1, their 23rd straight losing season dating all the way back to 1972. In 1995, the Wildcats shocked the football world by going 10-2, and followed that up with an impressive 9-3 campaign in 1996 before returning to their losing ways in the 1997-1999 seasons.
Since then, the Wildcats have alternated back and forth between conference championship contenders and conference cellar dwellers.
The last two years, the program has taken another up-tick. Former Northwestern defensive great Pat Fitzgerald took over leadership of the program after the untimely death of former coach Randy Walker in 2006. While the team went just 4-8 in his rookie campaign, they've improved every year since, culminating in a 9-4 record a year ago.
Can Northwestern continue improving, and stake a claim as one of the premiere Big Ten programs?
If they do, it will most likely be because Mike Kafka has finally grown into the role of starting quarterback. Kafka might be the new starter, but he's far from inexperienced. Kafka was the Northwestern starter for part of 2006, before losing his job to now departed CJ Bacher. He was able to get work last season when Bacher got injured, and threw for 330 yards and two touchdowns, while showing off his wheels to the tune of 321 yards on the ground.
Kafka will need to improve his passing, but the dual threat he brings to the team could serve as a headache to opposing defenses.
The other key offensive spot for the Wildcats is at running back. The departure of four-year starter Tyrell Sutton leaves a question mark in the backfield. Northwestern has been blessed over the last decade to have quite a bit of talent at the running back position, and while they aren't lacking this year, no one has stepped up to grab the starting job.
Stephen Simmons looks like the favorite right now to get the nod on opening day, but he's not the prototypical every down back, witnessed by his 5'8" 175-pound frame. Kafka is actually the leading returning rusher, as Simmons got just 62 carries for 178 yards last season.
The wide receiver corps is also being rebuilt almost from scratch as the top four receivers have all departed, but green talent does remain, and coaches feel this could become a real strength of the team as the season goes on.
With all the new faces starting on offense, the Wildcats defense will be leaned on heavily for a good portion of the year. Normally, that would be bad news, but the defensive minded Fitzgerald has helped shape the Wildcats into one of the better defenses in the conference. Northwestern actually gave up the fourth fewest points in the Big Ten, behind powerhouse defenses like Ohio State, Penn State, and Iowa.
The Wildcats secondary is the strength of a strong D, with all four starters returning including three All-Big Ten players in safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith and cornerback Sherrick McManis. The other cornerback, Jordan Mabin, was named a freshman All-American.
The schedule for the Wildcats certainly seems to scream "fast start" with their first three games being against FCS division Towson to open the season, and then games against two of the worst teams in FBS football, Eastern Michigan and Syracuse.
The conference road schedule is no slouch, as Northwestern travels to Purdue, Iowa, Michigan State, and hated rival Illinois, but the rotation schedule allows them to miss both Ohio State and what should be a much improved Michigan squad.
Will the planets align and make Northwestern the Big Ten champs? Probably not, but a bowl game is extremely likely, if not a certainty, and for fans in Evanston expecting their team to compete is a welcome change.