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:
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.