Slowing down the offseason optimism

Mark Heismans IA '12

It was bound to happen at some point.

The offseason optimism train built off the Gator Bowl victory and the strong start to recruiting was bound to hit a derailment at some point as the cold, sober realities of the season began to approach. Those naysayers in the background were going to find a way to let their voices heard in the dark crevices of a long and quiet offseason.

The feel-good story of the Northwestern Wildcats 2013 offseason has filled this site with optimism. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian CAN complement each other and form a devastating 1-2 attack at quarterback. Venric Mark CAN  follow up his breakout season with another All-Big Ten-caliber year out of the backfield. The secondary, with veterans like Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose leading it, CAN become better and stop those long passes that have bedeviled Northwestern the last three or so years (in other words, there is depth there now). The offensive line CAN mesh together despite losing much of its experience. The defensive line CAN come together again and create pressure up front.

These are all things that feel certain now but have hardly been guarantees in Northwestern’s football history (even recently). Even in years when Northwestern fans rightly had a feeling of optimism — see: 2010 or 2011 — things could quickly fall apart if the ball bounces the wrong way or the wrong player gets hurt. There are still a lot of variables that could go into a successful season in 2013.

Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but these warnings should not be completely ignored.

Dealing with success comes with its own problems, as LTP pointed out. Expectations create their own internal and external pressures which must be met. And sometimes the program is not ready to meet them.

Fitz rejoices arms up Gator Bowl '13If Northwestern has ever been ready to meet this higher level of expectations, it is now. The bowl win is in the back pocket and the recruiting is better than ever. As we have noted time and time again, maintaining is more difficult than getting to that level to begin with.

Excuse some for being skeptical, even after a fantastic 10-3 season last year.

Brad Edwards of ESPN.com used a statistic known as expected points added to see which teams were better or worse than their record indicated. Using those numbers, he extrapolates that Northwestern, because the team was statistically worse than its record, could be a team primed for a slide. For sure, this is a realistic look at the overly optimistic never-ending upward trend Northwestern fans are seeing. One that you will not typically get from inside the fan base and even from upcoming opponents.

But Edwards notes that Northwestern had a relatively easy schedule and did not rack up many wins against teams rated highly by EPA. The Wildcats will have a significantly tougher schedule this year with the Buckeyes and the Badgers rotating onto the schedule. Brian Bennett of ESPN.com thinks the “overrated” tag might have been a little unfair. This does put a little damper on the positive vibes.

This next link should not help matters much either.

Steven Goldstein of PurpleWildcats.com wrote last week a column entitled: “Time to slow our NU football optimsim.” That sound is the wind deflating slowly from our balloon. Goldstein writes:

 

Call it bad timing, call it preseason speculation, but Northwestern faces perhaps the toughest schedule in the Big Ten this fall, putting at least a slight damper on those lofty expectations. Right as realignment places them in the Western division, the Cats are slated to face every perennial powerhouse the conference has to offer, including aspiring national title team Ohio State.

 

Northwestern could chew out an 8-5 record just as easily as 10-3 or even 11-2.

 

That schedule issue again comes up. Northwestern definitely benefited from not having to play Ohio State or Wisconsin last year. And, considering Northwestern had three wins decided by six points or fewer, maybe Northwestern could have fallen to eight wins even last year. It might be getting too much in the hypothetical.

Like last year though, Northwestern still has the opportunity to win every game on their schedule. And what matters is not the statistics or the predictions, but lining up and scoring more points than the other team.

For now, let’s keep the optimism.

 

  • CatAlum06

    The challenge will be for all of us fans who are big-time pushing friends and family to come to these hyped home games. My biggest fear is that the team stumbles before the OSU game… or comes out flat in that game and gets down big at half time. How in the world am I going to keep them interested?

  • MF

    One strange coincidence around NU football is that, each season, our expected strengths and weaknesses seem to play out exactly the other way. For example, last pre-season we heard about how awesome our receivers were going to be and how suspect we would be at RB. My memory won’t deliver specific examples for prior seasons, but I know they are there because I’ve been saying this for years. So going into this year, my money is on the O-line.

  • PurpleHayes

    If 8-5 is the bottom of the range, with our schedule, then we are indeed making progress. One thing I wonder is this: we beat Mississipi State soundly, but clearly they did not play their best game (especially their QB, who threw more interceptions against our suspect secondary than he threw the rest of the year in the SEC). I was celebrating in Jax as much as anyone, and still feel the glow, but consider: If MSU had beaten us, which was not unfathomable, what would we be thinking now staring at a 2013 schedule featuring OSU, @ WI, @ NEB, MI? I’m optimistic and even excited, but let’s not take one glorious New Year’s performance and bank it for years to come. LTP I hear your message: One week at a time, and let’s enjoy the ride.

    • Mark Wheaton

      Having just watched the BTN replay of the Gator bowl last week, I disagree with the comment that “we beat MSU soundly”. The momentum had turned to MSU at the half, and they answered our TD in the third quarter. That game was much closer than the score indicated, yet as often happened last year the Cats found new ways to win (in this game INTs). But I totally agree with your premise that had the Cats lost that game, 2013 might look a lot less optimistic…..

      • PurpleHayes

        Actually Mark I agree. I wanted to ward off any responses of “Hey we beat them by 2 TD”, but I probably stated it too strongly. I too have watched the replay. That onside kick where the MSU player stepped out of bounds, one less INT by their QB–that game clearly hung in the balance, which I hope confirms my earlier point that while the bowl victory was great, and removing the monkey was awesome, we shouldn’t project forward too far. I remember in ’97 when, after back-to-back titles, we shut out Oklahoma in the season opener, and everyone wanted to order Rose Bowl tickets right away…..I’m sure Fitz will pump these guys with the reality check that pride goeth before a fall.

      • gocatsgo2003

        What you just described is “football.” It’s a game of momentum and big plays, which we found a way to make against a solid if not spectacular SEC team. The ability of Northwestern fans to find the negative in the positive is one of the most baffling and unrelenting of our characteristics.

  • Catatonic Joe

    The respect that we are getting from other B1G teams is just the product of the past several years’ success and it has been earned by our players. I remember a posting to a neutral blog before the Meineke Bowl by a fan from another B1G school, warning Texas A&M, “Watch out Aggies, the nerds can play football.”

    Now that we have arrived at respectability and are aiming higher, we have to learn to temper confidence with caution. If you speak with fans from other programs that have had some success, everyone but the most arrogant fans (i.e. Notre Dame), struggle to balance expectations that their team should/could do well with the trepidation that it may not. That is normal. That is exactly what we have been seeing from Eleven Warriors, OSU fans worrying about NU. The margin of success often depends on which way a fumble bounces or, like last year, whether a tipped pass falls into the hands of a Michigan receiver. Cautious optimism should keep us grounded that this COULD be a special year, but go ahead and bask in good news until fall camp when it becomes time to sweat each game again.

  • Mark

    Doug Collins on ESPN’s Mike & Mike show this morning wearing a Northwestern jacket/pullover. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

  • DePaulNU

    It’s all about the wins. As mentioned, the early Vegas lines came out. I took those lines and converted them to a win or loss percentage (I assumed Nebraska as a pickem’ and Main and W.MI as wins, as they were not listed).

    Then I made a binomial distribution using those percentages for the 12 game season, which gives the expected percentage of number of wins for the season.

    5 Game Win Season = 1.99%
    6 Game Win Season = 6.04%
    7 Game Win Season = 13.45%
    8 Game Win Season = 21.83%
    9 Game Win Season = 25.20%
    10 Game Win Season = 19.63%
    11 Game Win Season = 9.27%
    12 Game Win Season = 2.01%

    This looks pretty good to me. There’s about a 75% chance of being a 8-10 win season.

    • CatInTheHat

      Ha! Only at Northwestern. Love it!

  • gocatsgo2003

    Stats are for losers.

    • Hank

      Yeah, let’s just play the games one week at a time.

      If preseason forecasts were ever any good then why even bother taking the field?

  • David

    Syracuse by 1
    Vandy by 10
    BC by 9
    SD by 31
    IU by 15
    Minny by 8
    Iowa by 11
    MSU by 3
    IL by 36
    MSU by 14

    It would be hypothetical because NU did not win 3 games by 6 or less. NU had 20 point leads against Syracuse, IU, Iowa and of course IL. Not only did NU win by large margins by NU standards…With some timely D 4 games could have been genuine blowouts. To say NU could have easily had 8 wins has similar merit to saying NU could have had 13 wins.

  • Old Fat Bald Guy

    As PurpleHayes says, if we’re at the point where our concern is that NU might go 8-5 … but I also think there are short-range and long-range aspects of this. I’m extremely confident, in the long view, that the program is getting stronger and there are many more good seasons ahead. This season, or any individual season, is more of a crap shoot. Backslide? Sure, they might.

    The bowl win is great PR but I don’t think it has any value in predicting the future. For one thing, it’s extremely likely that there would have been no bowl win if the Cats hadn’t blown the Michigan game. Beat Michigan and you’re playing a serious SEC team, not Mississippi State. Would we really be less happy? I guess, because we were so sick of hearing about the streak. But I’d rather beat Michigan than Mississippi State.

West Division

TeamsW (Overall)L (Overall)W (B1G)L (B1G)
Northwestern0000
Wisconsin0000
Minnesota0000
Nebraska0000
Purdue0000
Iowa0000
Illinois0000

East Division

TeamsW (Overall)L (Overall)W (B1G)L (B1G)
Indiana0000
Maryland0000
Michigan0000
Michigan State0000
Ohio State0000
Penn State0000
Rutgers0000