Embrace The New Goal: Bowl Eligibility

The past is the past. Yes, it is a cliché, but so is “the future is bright,” which Northwestern fans have said the last couple years.

Here is the deal, people. NU’s lofty expectations, which we all fell for a few weeks ago, are long gone.

Long gone.

We, the fans and media, are back in a familiar place. Northwestern is .500, has lost some close battles and is fighting for bowl eligibility. It is not the glorious circumstance we thought we would be in, but we are here. If anything, the Iowa loss only makes NU fandom easier, or at least nerve-wracking since the stakes are so much lower. It allows us to accept the reality of Northwestern’s new expectations.

Would you believe me if I told you Northwestern is about to enter the most exciting stretch of the season?

Maybe you would have in August if I pointed out the Nebraska-Michigan-Michigan State stretch. This was supposed to be the period of the schedule that decided the division among the four teams.  Instead, Northwestern is 0-4 in Big Ten play and Legends Division title dreams have been laughable for two weeks (not to mention Nebraska and Michigan have surprising Big Ten losses to Minnesota and Penn State, respectively).

In college football, the season is never “lost” until a team cannot win six games. Northwestern still has four chances to win two games. No, the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl or an at-large bowl bid does not sound as juicy as it did say, ten years ago (NU played in the 2003 Motor City Bowl), but they are still postseason opportunities to keep the program active for a month longer.

Bury the Rose Bowl hatchet and forget the Ohio State game (remember College GameDay because that was awesome). Do not make excuses. Northwestern has a new goal: make a bowl game. It is not going to be as fun of a final month as we expected, but it is what it is.

Take it or leave it.

Northwestern gets a shaky Nebraska team coming off a loss at Minnesota next week. The Cornhuskers and Wildcats have already played two classics since Nebraska joined the conference in 2011. It should be another grind in Lincoln next week.

After Nebraska, NU gets Michigan and Michigan State at home, and Illinois on the road. NU nearly won in Ann Arbor last season in the game that shall never be spoken of again, and the ‘Cats should keep up with the possibly overrated Wolverines (Wouldn’t it just be sweet to beat Michigan again?). Despite Michigan State’s stingy defense, Northwestern is coming off a 2012 victory in East Lansing and should compete with the current Legends Division leader. NU finishes in Champaign against an Illinois team it defeated by 36 points last season.

Northwestern lost four games. That was not fun. But there is still a reason to watch.

And don’t say, “Northwestern sucks.” In Big Ten play, the ‘Cats lost two games by one possession, and figuratively lost the Ohio State game by one possession.

Nobody is still calling Northwestern the cream of the Big Ten crop, as they did in September, but no one is calling this team a joke. The Wildcats are still very capable of going 7-5 or 6-6 (or 8-4 for you eternal optimists), which would earn a bid to a low-tier Big Ten bowl. The Heart of Dallas Bowl may not have been the goal in August, but at this point, it would be a heck of a way to end the season.

Wipe away your tears and unclench your fists. Northwestern is not going to have the program-defining year we hoped it would. Accept it. Earning two wins in four games is on the line for the 2013 Wildcats. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Besides, the future is bright. At least, that is what we all should keep telling ourselves.

  • Mark Wheaton

    With apologies to The Who, “Meet the new goal, same as the old goal….”
    Different year, same goal. Hope to get to a bowl game and win it. When your career coaching record the first month of your conference season is well below .500, you have lots of experience with this goal. You aren’t in the championship hunt, you are one of the also-rans. So this should serve NU well now that once again the Cats are in desperation mode.

  • NU’05

    The 4 games left are all winnable. While, I don’t see us going 4-0 over that stretch, none of the remaining games are lost causes. We should be competitive in every one. The difference between winning out and going winless in that stretch will come down to a small number of key plays. Tighten up the execution and stop making huge mistakes at opportune moments, and we can salvage this season. No reason why we can’t go 2-2 and reach a bowl.

    • timc

      I disagree based on only one opponent. I do not see us beating Michigan State. Their defense is ranked in the top 5 nationally in EVERY major category! Look what they did to Illinois in Champaign. With our anemic offense how is this winnable?

      • NU’05

        Michigan State did look good against Illinois, but they also looked pretty bad against Purdue. If the game were in East Lansing, I wouldn’t give us much of a shot. But since we’re at home, I see us still being in the game in the 4th quarter, if we show up to play. I certainly don’t give us great odds in that game, but if we can keep it close, we definitely have a shot.

      • Dohsan

        MSU’s offense is also capable of going a whole game without scoring a touchdown. That’s why that game is winnable.

  • Catatonic Joe

    I have done my best to sit out the community angst and venting this past weekend. Winning 10 games one year does not guarantee winning 10 or more the next year, even with the same players. Injuries, mental mistakes, great plays by opponents and funny bounces can change a season. Last year could easily have been less than 10 wins. Improvement is not a constant.

    To everyone jumping off the Fitz wagon, think back. His first couple years people said he couldn’t get the team to a bowl game, Until last year, he was the guy who couldn’t WIN a bowl game. For years, the knock on the NU program is only it was only capable of recruiting 2 star kids and coaching them up into overachievers. Now we complain that we have 3 star and 4 star youngsters who aren’t being played enough. I think that, as a group, we are a little to close to the progress to see it happening before our eyes. Take a deep breath.

    I’m headed to Lincoln this weekend to keep hoping, but more importantly, to continue supporting the team. Go Cats!

  • Indycat15

    There’s a lot of parity in the Legends Division. There’s a lot of parity in the NFL. Every week good teams lose close games in both leagues. A losing streak in the NFL isn’t the end of the world, but in college football it’s crippling to our postseason aspirations. We lose a couple close games and it doesn’t mean we’re a bad team. It just means we’re not dominant. In the NFL, even the Broncos and Seahawks don’t go undefeated. Our hopes this year were that we’d go undefeated or close to it. Reality check- we’re a slightly better than average college team. A team that will be in every game but unlikely to blow anyone out or get blown out (again). We are the Dallas Cowboys or Detroit Lions.

  • JM

    With all due respect, go on Twitter and you will find plenty of people calling NU a joke. OSU critics cite their close win vs us as the single biggest piece of evidence that the Buckeyes are overrated. It’s pretty much the totality of the national conversation about us at this point.

    That said, I agree we need to get to bowl eligibility. Any bowl. Losing three weeks of practice going into a year where we’ll be working in a lot of new parts would be a disaster. Plus, you’d like to think that a 2-4 week break prior to a bowl game versus a weaker opponent gives us a chance to get healthy and hopefully get a win. So even Detroit would be a huge positive at this point.

    • PBRCat

      I could just as easily call The Ohio State University a joke too. The big money from the BCS has a way of corrupting the process. As the only B1G conference team with a prayer of reaching a BCS bowl, OSU has been receiving substantial assistance from officials on numerous suspect calls all season long during conference games.
      Unless the Buckeyes improve substantially during the weeks preceding their bowl game, I expect that they will be blown away by the opposing team. Let’s face it, the B1G conference is simply not that good this season. Yes, the Bucknuts are overrated.
      The best thing that can be said for a visit to Ford Field in Detroit is that it is an NFL stadium that is a short ride away and an inexpensive trip. While a game in Texas would be a step up, I am not so sure that I am enthused about attending a fifth game in the Lone Star State. I am still peeved that the B1G conference no longer has an affiliation with the Music City Bowl.

      • Uncle Alligator

        20 straight wins and they are rated #4 in the nation. Not a single #1 vote. Overrated? Not without their flaws, but I think they’ve earned a Top 5 ranking.

        • PBRCat

          Cry Uncle! This is not your father’s Buckeye team that struggled to narrowly beat Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin in an off year in the B1G Conference. Twenty straight wins includes more than a few Hostess Cupcakes in the non-conference schedule. OSU is no longer a dominating team as in years gone by. I expect a huge reevaluation of the team after the bowl season ends.

  • DarkSide

    Call me DarkSide. I would like to think of myself as a realist but I am more likely a pessimist. The glass is generally half empty in my world. With that introduction in mind, I bring you the DarkSide centric view of the world. Last year we were close to beating Nebraska and Michigan (I do not think the Penn State game was that close despite our lead). We were also close to losing against Vandy, Syracuse, and Michigan State. Just as easily as 9-3, we could have been 6-6. This year we are 4-4. We could easily be 7-1. We could have/should have beaten OSU. With a little bounce of the ball in our direction, we beat Iowa. With more grit and determination, we beat Minnesota. Only Wisconsin beat the snot out of us. Yes, injuries have devastated our team. Other than V. Mark, we are getting back our players. In my humble opinion we can beat Nebraska this week. Our players need to play this one game and not the games before and after. Concentration, determination, hard work and a postitive attitude (along with a reasonable game plan) can get us a W in Lincoln. I went to Northwestern during the Dark Ages. We are nowhere near a Dark Age. I will be heading to Lincoln this weekend proudly cheering for the ‘Cats with my head held high. Go ‘Cats!

    • Indycat15

      Agree completely. Hardest job for a coach is to get his 18-22yo players to keep their chins up in this situation. We are nowhere near a dark age. Fitz deserves criticism for losses, but the talent on the team is up in general and his teams have never tanked. He deserves credit for that.

  • Kentucky_Wildcat

    In my lawfirm (with four offices in Kentucky, as well as offices in IN and PA) we have Blue Wildcats and Purple Wildcats…my Blue Wildcat bretheren have been very supportive…their great first quarter against FL this year is the kind of thing that keeps them going (and the start of basketball season) but they remain great football fans in the SEC (not the Securities and Exchange Commision)…I was in school when Parsegian was coach and Tommy Meyers and Paul Flatley had us ranked #1…love that, but also love the game…Go Cats!
    KY Wildcat (Bill Hunter) william.hunter@skofirm.com

  • PurpleHayes

    I’ve been at this 40 years, and 2013 may be the toughest season to swallow. Plenty of 0-11’s in the past, but for dashed expectations after early promise, 2013 may take the cake. Some mentioned 2001, but for me opening the 1997 season by shutting out Oklahoma and then falling apart is the only rival to this season. A new range of emotions, and frankly it sucks. But I invite all of us, myself included, to take a deep breath and count to ten. Stay in the moment and stop drawing conclusions. We are not a doormat. Fitz is not a horrible coach, nor is he a star coach (yet). We do not have signature wins, but we have much better athletes and are much more competitive. At the same time, there are no moral victories and I agree losing is terrible. Play calling is suspect, the offense is schizophrenic and largely inept. But the second half Saturday was the best in the last eight halves. Build on it. The season now easily divides itself into four-game chapters, with one final stanza yet to go. I believe if you step back, we are making progress overall. But if I’m right, we’ll see signs of that progress (and even a couple of victories) in these final four games. Bowl eligibility is fine, but for me what those two more wins demonstrate is we are moving forward. To lose out in the B1G would indicate the whole season was fool’s gold, and we are regressing. I said before the season the sign of a true “program” is to have success and not then fall to the bottom before resurfacing. That’s what at stake now. And it’s huge.

    • Chasmo

      I couldn’t agree more at how important it is to win two more games.
      [The 1997 season, by the way, is somewhat akin to this season and NU lost D'Wayne Bates for the season in that Oklahoma game and so in 1997, as in 2013, NU lost its top offensive player (or for those of you who feel Colter is #1, its 1B offensive player) and the results have been ugly.]
      Perhaps NU can hold on to all its top recruits and even sign one or two more star prospects without going to a bowl this year but it’s hard to be confident that will happen.
      NU needs to go to the Pizza-Pizza bowl this year as much as it needed to win the Gator Bowl last year for the image of its program to keep improving.

      • PBRCat

        Oddly enough, only Northwestern and Purdue have ever represented the B1G Conference in Detroit. In many seasons, there has been no eligible B1G team available to appear in the bowl game. The MAC champion usually plays in the game.

  • go cats

    Due to APR rules 5-7 will get us to a bowl

    • Chaddogg

      Technically, 5-7 CAN get us there. But it’s highly doubtful.

    • Alaskawildcat

      More to the point, if we indeed are 5-7 and there are not enough qualifying teams to fill the BIG Ten contracted bowl slots, do we automatically go bowling because of APR rule qualification?

      This is purely an academic question, as I personally believe we will be bowl qualified with 6 wins when we take down the Wolverines after our bye week of prep following the Wildcat win over Nebraska.

  • Jon Vander Woude

    Getting 6 wins and a bowl berth would be huge in terms of an extra month of practice for next year. Need to get that.

  • HDB

    Bo will be fighting to keep his job. Loss against winless Big team will not help. Go Cats!

  • Purple Flag on Saturday

    It has been a gut wrenching month for the fans, surely. I can only imagine how these past four games have affected the mental health of the team. The swagger has become the stagger. The national press doesn’t love us anymore (for the time being, at least). The club we thought we were joining has withdrawn the invitation. Most of the anger should have been vented by now, so what’s ahead?

    A third of the season is ahead. Get back behind the guys. Remove the purple sweatshirt from the box headed for Goodwill. Put out the N flag on Saturday morning. Emotionally reinvest in the ‘Cats.

    It’s what we do.

  • Catatonic Joe

    To DarkSide and anyone else headed to Lincoln this weekend, the NU Women’s Volleyball Team will be playing Nebraska Saturday Night at 7:30. What a two-fer! See you there!

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      NU volleyball has played very well against the Huskers. Upset them two years ago in Nebraska’s first year in the Big Ten. Husker volleyball fans are confused by Northwestern’s ownership of Nebraska on the field and on the court.