The Big Ten has been known for producing powerhouse football teams since the conference’s founding in 1896. But in the early stages of this 2012 season, the conference has been plagued by questions about its strength from the top down.
However, there is one team that has not only met its preseason expectations but is exceeding them. This team doesn’t lead the conference in any statistical category, but they are the only team in the conference to win its first three games against BCS level opponents. And to make matters even better, there is a very real chance this team can go 7-0 to start the season.
That’s right, folks. This team is your 2012 Northwestern Wildcats.
With wins against Syracuse (42-41), Vanderbilt (23-13) and Boston College (22-13), Northwestern not only defeated three teams from the best conferences in college football, but primed themselves for a run that no Wildcat squad has pulled off since FDR's presidency.
Northwestern’s schedule is packed at the top and bottom with tough games but gets considerably weaker in the middle. And because the Wildcats have already cleared three of their highest hurdles, Northwestern comes into heart of the season with enough momentum to make history.
First comes South Dakota, an FCS team that Northwestern should have no trouble handling at Ryan Field this Saturday. Then comes Indiana (2-1), who won one game last season and whose only resounding victory this season came against UMass, a team that just achieved Division I status. Also, their starting quarterback Tre Roberson is out for the season with a broken leg.
If Northwestern wins these two games at Ryan Field, they will have gone 5-0 for the first time since 2010 (7-6), when quarterback Dan Persa’s Achilles tendon — and then the season — fell apart.
The Wildcats will then hit the road for games against Penn State (1-2), who has been heavily depleted by transfers in the wake of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Minnesota (3-0), who barely escaped with wins against UNLV (30-27 OT) and Western Michigan (28-23).
With a win against Penn State, Northwestern would be 6-0 for the first time since 1959 (6-3). A win against Minnesota and the Wildcats would be 7-0 for the first time since 1936 (7-1) when the No. 1 ranked Northwestern squad was defeated by No. 11 Notre Dame in the last game of the season.
Much has changed in college football since 1936 but one simple fact holds true: If Northwestern can go 7-0, big things can happen for the Wildcats.
Going 7-0 means that Northwestern would have won three games against teams from other BCS conferences that automatically qualify for bowls and three games against teams in their own conference just past the half way point in the season.
In comparison, the 2011 Wildcats (6-7) only won three games against Big Ten opponents in total and beat the only team in an automatic qualifying conference they played, Boston College. Yet this win was tempered by a loss to Army, a team that won three games all season.
If nothing else, a 7-0 start insures a statistical improvement on last season. But let’s not stop there.
A 7-0 Northwestern team would be comfortably seated in the AP Top 25, and while it’s difficult to pinpoint where the ‘Cats would be ranked amongst the rest of the college football world, the lowest ranked 7-0 team from a major conference in 2011 was No. 12 Kansas State from the Big 12.
With a prime seat in the polls and strong standing within the Big Ten, the 7-0 Wildcats would head into the more challenging bottom half of their schedule with a substantial safety net against some of the best teams in the conference.
Campus will be abuzz with talk of a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. The quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian will leave coaches floundering to put together a coherent game plan, Venric Mark will make the most skilled tacklers in the Midwest look foolish and the Wildcat front seven will stump running backs to save the NU secondary from exploitation. And for once, Northwestern students may not get cheered out of Ryan Field by opposing fans.
Northwestern will face Nebraska on Family Weekend and Iowa during Homecoming before traveling to Michigan and Michigan State. They will then come home to finish the regular season against Illinois. While the offensively challenged Iowa should not pose much of a challenge for Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State could dismantle the Wildcats on a whim and Nebraska and Illinois are no slouches.
This is where things get tenuous. Northwestern could go 5-0 or 0-5 in this stretch depending on how long this early season magic lasts and if the Wildcats return to what plagued them in 2011: combustibility and unpredictability.
Realistically, no one is expecting the Wildcats to finish out 12-0, get snubbed for the BCS championship for an SEC team and win the Rose Bowl. But then again, few expected this team to do any better than 6-6 with a win over UCLA in the Joy Yee Governor’s Chicken Bowl.
Northwestern fans could only dream of a 7-0 start in the midst of the tumultuous and streaky 2011 season.
Now, it isn’t a dream; it’s a distinct possibility. And while the Cardiac ‘Cats of old could easily reemerge and crush the hopes of the Northwestern faithful, while Northwestern is heading in the direction of record success, Northwestern students can only joyously go along for the ride and hope it takes the purple back to Pasadena.
It’s not as crazy as you might think.