Splitting Hairs: 2012 vs 1996

See, this is the type of off-season fare that only diehards can get in to.  When you look back at this Gator Bowl Championship season, I find myself looking to place it in historical context.  No one outside of Northwestern football fans would care about this post, but that’s exactly what makes this community special, right?

Several of you have actually asked me this question. “2012 is the best season since….?”  My answer is usually, “depends”.   If one is measuring by simple wins, then the 9-win season of 2008 pops to mind. However, when you consider that is was a championship season, ANY championship, you then go back to 2000, outside of the ’95 Rose Bowl season, the most exciting year in memory.  The ‘Cats won only 8 games that year, but tied for the B1G title. While the season got buzzkilled by a Nebraska team that steamrolled us, it will never take away some of the most exciting wins in school history, including the Michigan 54-51 classic, the Wisconsin thriller in Madison and of course, Victory Right against Minnesota.

Recently, Dave, submitted a year-by-year breakdown of our modern history opponents and their final records as a means for comparison on this very topic. He posed a question to me that at first caused me to react with a “no way!” Then, after reviewing his data, it pried my mind open and became the subject of this post. Was this year’s team more impressive  than the 1996 team?

Of course, you’ll go right where I went. Wait a minute. 1996 was a Big Ten championship year and we went 7-1 in the conference and 9-2 overall before getting pummeled by Peyton Manning in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.  I thought it was a preposterous notion as nostalgia sets in on that year of Cardiac ‘Catness in particular. The Brian Gowins nailing not one, but two FGs to pull off the miracle comeback vs Michigan.  The Ron Dayne fumble game in Madison. The Purdue and Minnesota last second wins. The shellacking of Iowa at Kinnick.  Not to mention the star power of Fitz, Bates, Darnell, Schnur and the altogether still unbelievable 15-1 conference mark over two years, with only a blowout loss at Penn State keeping us from going perfect in conference for back-to-back years.

Take a look at the 1996 schedule, including the won/loss records of the opponents:

1996 Schedule

L – Wake Forest (3-8) 28-27

W- Duke (0-11) 38-13

W-Ohio (6-6) 28-7

W – Indiana (3-8) 35-17

W- Michigan (8-4) 17-16

W-Minnesota (4-7) 26-24

W-Wisconsin (8-5) 34-30

W- Illinois (2-9)  27-24

L-Penn State (11-2) 34-9

W-Iowa (9-3) 40-13

W-Purdue (3-8) 27-24

L-Tennessee (10-2) 48-28

Overall, NU was 9-3, with a very bad loss at Wake Forest, and very good wins over Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin with a blowout loss to Penn State. The rest of the slate of competition included several last second wins against teams with horrible records (Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota).

When you compare 1996 to the 2012 schedule, the non-conference difference stands out. There were no bad losses and, in retrospect, two very good wins – beating a 9-4 Vanderbilt team and the Big East champion, Syracuse (8-5), while also disposing of FCS foe South Dakota and a 1996 Wake Forest-like Boston College (2-10).  Advantage no doubt to the 2012 team.  Our five wins in B1G play in 2012, however, didn’t have the marquee value that we had in 1996.  Simply put, of our six other wins (Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois, Mississippi State) only two – Michigan State (7-6) and Mississippi State (8-5) ended up with records over .500.  At face value there is little comparison between ’12 and ’96 in conference (5-3 vs 7-1 in conference records).  However, when you break down some of the games, particularly the games in ’96 that came down to the last play – Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, the nuance of the quality of the win may balance your view.

Northwestern took care of business against Indiana in a game that we set an alltime record for offensive yards. We controlled Minnesota from the get-go and throttled Illinois.  We won every game we should’ve won and had no bad losses.  Conversely, we failed to grab that marquee win against Michigan or Nebraska, but the last second nature of both games has to come in to consideration. Penn State (8-4) could’ve been considered a quality win, and again, we all know where the ‘Cats were in that one – in complete control heading in to the 4th quarter.  The wins in ’96 over Michigan, Wisconsin and especially Iowa, are pound for pound, to me, the differentiators in this conversation.  It wasn’t just Wisconsin at Camp Randall, it was Ron Dayne, and Wisconsin during the height of the Alvarez era.  It wasn’t just Iowa, it was a top 15 team that we annihilated 40-13.

So, the ’96 team took home a co-B1G title, had two bad losses (I’ll include any blowout as a bad loss, even though Penn State was ranked), several way too-close-for-comfort wins, three “good wins” and of course, a blowout loss in the bowl game. The 2012 team had zero bad losses, four good (but maybe not ’96 quality) wins (Vandy, Syracuse, Michigan State and Mississippi State) and a take care of business slate in games we were favored. We had three soul-crushing losses to high quality opponents. What at first seemed like a no-brainer NU bar debate at least merits discussion. I’m curious to hear your opinions.  It’d also be interesting to get the take of the one guy who would have the best perspective on this – Fitz.

  • JM

    I don’t think it’s particularly close. The 1996 team played a far tougher schedule in a far better conference, and posted better wins and played in a much better bowl game against a much better opponent. Yes, we lost that bowl game, but it was to one of the top 10 QBs of all time at any level. I’d also put the win over a Michigan team that included Charles Woodson et al among the best in school history. Oh, and they won the Big Ten.

    The 2012 team may have exceeded expectations more than any Cats team other than 1995 and 2000, but it posted no “wow” wins (including a bowl in which we were slightly favored), and the late-game collapses cost it a legit shot to win the conference.

    I love the 2012 team for exceeding expectations and shredding the monkey, but I don’t think the two squads’ resumes are all that close.

  • PurpleHayes

    You’re right, it’s interesting that we even have this discussion, and in fact when you look on paper it appears 2012 might have the edge (much stronger non-conference, no blowout loss, etc.). But in the end, I’m with JM in voting for the ’96 team. I think the conference was tougher, and in terms of dramatic flair, that Michigan/Minnesota/Wisconsin trifecta in midseason was breathtaking. I was in Madison and it was one of the more thrilling victories in program history. (I was also in Happy Valley in ’96 and nominate that game for the froze-my-***-off competition you had a few weeks ago.) The greatest thing about 2012 was how far they exceeded expectations. In ’96 the expectations were high, maybe the talent level wasn’t quite so, but somehow they found a way. The fact we can even have this conversation is yet another tip of the cap to 2012, but I’m ranking the 1996 accomplishments higher. Now if that 2012 Michigan Hail Mary had been batted down…..

  • cheesemacaroni

    Agree with all of JM’s points and will add some more. Forget 1996, There is no question that the 2000 team was a better team than 2012. We had our share of disappointments in 2000, but we were ranked the entire second half of the season, beat three top 20 teams, had the amazing Michigan win, and won a Big Ten title. The bowl loss was crushing, but it was against a top ten team.

    2012 was a great and important season for the Cats. But it was the fourth best of the modern era. Don’t forget that many of us view the 3 losses as disappointments. Losing to Michigan in the last 18 seconds is at least as bad as losing to Iowa in 2000. That’s obviously a sign of how far the program has come, and good things lie ahead. But there’s some more ways to go.

    • Fanaticat

      I disagree that there’s “no question” about the 2000 team being better than 2012. Our offense that year was clearly one of the best in B1G history and certainly elevates the status of that whole year. However, we got absolutely throttled by most of the top competition – TCU, Purdue and Nebraska – and a terrible Iowa team dominated us from start to finish. A number of other games required last second or OT come from behind wins after we gave up tons of points on D. We were 8-4 that year and nowhere close to winning the games we lost. In 2012 we were 10-3 and not that far away from 13-0. So I’d say we were probably a better/more consistent team overall.

  • nucat96

    1996 Big 10 Champs. End of debate

    • zeek

      Well, I think we can agree that it’s the best season since the mid-90s. That much makes sense.

  • CatInTheHat

    1996 was the better season overall, but I rank the Gator Bowl itself as the second most important win in program history, behind only 9/2/95. That can change for the worse if we don’t capitalize on the positive momentum, though.

  • Scooter

    I wasn’t a fan in 1996, so I’ll dodge that portion of the question (what? It’s the entire question?) and just say that I think that the lack of bad losses was huge. Have we had a season with no bad losses in the 1995-and-beyond era before 2012? In my mind, that’s as big of a positive sign for the program going forward as the bowl win.

    • Mark

      Agree. Bobby Bowden said building a program is: lose big, lose little, win little, win big.

    • David

      Only 1995 and 2012 have lacked bad losses. In 1996 our non conference opponents were 9-25 and three B10 opponents didn’t manage 4 wins. Throw out… BC, Vandy and Syracuse combined for a 19-19 record. Only IL didn’t have 4 wins from our B10 opponents. I think nostalgia drives the perception of 1996. I think a strong case can be made for 2012. We won 6 non FCS games by 9 or more points this year. That means a last second mistake could not cost us the game. In 1996 we won only 4 games by more than 3 points.

      • David

        sorry..I started to say…throw out the FCS….I always leave them out of any analysis…Actually, I would only count them if we lost.

      • Fanaticat

        I’d say 1995 featured the most memorable “bad loss” of the modern era, although I’ll give you that RW’s Miami OH team went 10-2 that year or something.

  • Wildcats99

    In terms of pure win/loss and the great feeling of actually winning a bowl game this season, so I see why you make the comparison. Nonetheless, I hands down pick 1996! (with an important caveat: If the Cats go to the Rose Bowl or a BCS game in 2014 I think our historical view of the importance of 2012 can change dramatically as the “springboard” to the new ’95 season [which would be 2013/2014]).

    I am very happy with the 2012 result and it was nice to win a bowl, but none of our wins were over top ranked teams and the strength of the conference was down a lot this year and unfortunately in some of the key games I feel like the team lacked that special element of “we know we are going to win” mentality. PSU, Michigan, & Nebraska losses were just devastating. However, I agree that we were one play away from winning every game so if somehow we dominate next year as a result it would really change the perspective of these losses. 1996 in many ways was key to proving that the 1995 team was not a fluke and in the same way 2013 will be key to proving to the world that 2012 was not a fluke.

  • maryland cat

    I have to go with 1996. That’s not a criticism of this year’s team, and I thought from the start that beating Syracuse and Vanderbilt was excellent, but some of those 1996 games were epic. Mostly this year the Cats took care of business except for that bomb by Michigan.

  • Thanks for the feedback. Not surprised as it was my initial reaction as well, however the no bad losses (albeit major disappointing losses) was interesting food for thought.

  • bandcat

    No one saw what happened in 2012 coming…the running game surpassing the passing game…a D that stepped up B1G time…Final results matter.. Bowl Win…Bowl Win…Build On It…


    Proving 1995 was no fluke was no easy task. The program could have easily fell back to under .500 especially considering the ‘element of surprise’ was gone and the inertia of the ‘dark ages’. The win against Michigan at home (I was there) was one of the best games in the history of the program. I feel that the 2012 team loses that game. In addition, the Citrus Bowl (was there too) saw an NU team riddled with the flu against one of the all-time great quarterbacks in Peyton Manning. A healthy 1996 team beats Tennessee.
    Still, very proud of the 2012 ‘Cats and consider their season to be a big success.


      One more thing–perception is reality and by winning our bowl game–the perception of NU football by the average fan is now higher than in 1996.

      • Wildcats99

        I strongly disagree. Perception of NU Football in 1996 was extremely high. We were back-to-back Big Ten Champs! We were consistently selling out Ryan Field and NU was the nation’s Cinderella story (long before the Boise States of the world entered the fray). Also, losing the Rose Bowl or Citrus Bowl (in the pre-BCS era) didn’t really cause any to question NU. We were making some serious moves up in the world of College Football. Some of you just forget because it was a while ago. The bowl losses only became a perception issue when after we lost so many including some weak ones like the Motor City Bowl & Sun Bowl.

        • James Klock

          So, first of all, I don’t think that it’s a particularly meaningful comparison, to begin with. The notion that there exists a single “best” season is a kind of false dichotomy.

          The reason I’m putting this criticism of the entire conversation as a reply to this comment, in particular, is because that false dichotomy problem applies to the idea of national perception, too: I agree with Wildcats99 that the national and local *excitement* level around ‘Cats football in 1996 was huge, and I also think that proving that 1995 was not a fluke was really important to the program trajectory. That said, I think that Northwestern is now being seen as a serious, sustained *program*, in a way that is absolutely at odds with any sort of “Cinderella story” (since, by definition, a Cinderella story starts with the kind of low expectations that don’t exist in a program with sustained viability).

          So, 1996 did great things to put the program onto a trajectory. The road that followed had ups and downs, but the foundation did get built, and now we’re seeing the football program settling into “the next level”. 2012 did a lot to establish that “next level” element: bouncing back from a disappointing 2011, which was characterized by an injury-laden most-accurate-ever QB (and, notably, established that we can have a disappointing year that includes going to a mid-tier bowl game, a notion that would cause a ton of cognitive dissonance back in the 1990s). 2012 showed that we can hang with solid talent in traditional power-programs, and take care of business when it’s supposed to be an easy Saturday.

  • RLembke

    I enjoyed both seasons. I’m not sure that they are comparable. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the post. Thank you.