Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Here’s a goal: NU finishing the year at .500

With a victory over struggling Penn State on Saturday, Northwestern has a chance to do something it has done just once since 1971: win between five and seven games.

Now, that might not seem like a great season to most people, but there’s a reason it’s important to go .500.

Consistency.

Over the past decade or so, being an NU fan has been quite a roller-coaster ride. It’s been Big Ten champions one year and conference basement the next.

But if the Wildcats want to build both a reputation and a fan base — something that hasn’t really materialized despite three conference titles in the last eight years — they can’t continue to stay at the extreme ends of the Big Ten standings.

There’s no expectation that NU can duplicate the 1995, 1996 and 2000 seasons every year. Few teams can live up to those requirements, especially in the Big Ten.

At the same time, there’s no reason a down year can’t be 5-7 or 6-6, as opposed to 3-9.

And ending the 2003 season at .500 isn’t too much to expect, if the Cats can manage to beat a 2-7 Penn State squad that hasn’t yet won a Big Ten game. If the Nittany Lions — who haven’t fallen to NU since 1995 — go down Saturday, the Cats are left with a very winnable game in Champaign to close out their 6-6 overall mark and 4-4 conference record (assuming a loss to Michigan next week).

At that point not only would NU end up at .500, but the team would be eligible for a bowl game. (Of course, that doesn’t guarantee a spot since seven other Big Ten teams have already qualified for bowl games. NU’s fate primarily rests on whether the Big Ten can garner an at-large BCS slot. But with Ohio State squeezing out wins and Michigan looking unstoppable, that might not be out of the realm of possibility.)

I’d consider a 6-6 season and bowl eligibility a major triumph. And so should the rest of the Cats’ fans. Because with a bowl spot, NU would gain more than just good feelings among its supporters — it would get a whole bunch of extra practices, something that would help quite a bit next season.

With all of the constraints that are placed on NU’s recruiting, the team will never consistently top the conference standings, like a Michigan or an Ohio State.

But there’s no reason that the team can’t have a few great years balanced by some middle-of-the-pack seasons, making it to a bowl game every couple of years.

And the Cats have models of consistency near at hand: The last time Michigan won fewer than five games was way back in 1967, when the Wolverines managed just a 4-6 season.

Now, I’m not saying that NU could become the next Michigan — I’m not quite delusional — but there’s no harm in mediocrity. At least not the harm there is in settling in as the conference cellardweller year in and year out.

NU will never become a great football school. It just won’t happen. But the team can look at the 2003 season as something to replicate: wins over most of the teams it should beat, one big upset and an improvement over the prior year.

It hasn’t all been perfect for the Cats this season, but there have been a lot of positives. Six wins won’t get a team even close to a national title game, but it’s respectable.

And respectable is usually much better than NU can expect.

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Here’s a goal: NU finishing the year at .500