Northwestern kicks off its football season Saturday at Syracuse with the expectation of a fifth straight bowl appearance.
NU has been remarkably consistent in their play the last several seasons: Year after year, the Wildcats haven't been good enough to contend for their first Big Ten title since 2000, but they haven't been bad enough to finish the season with a losing record, and, as such, they've routinely gone to the postseason under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. When Bill Connelly previewed Northwestern, he asked whether continuing that trend would be enough for fans:
After Walker's tragic death, Pat Fitzgerald was asked to take over earlier than anticipated (he was just 31 at the time), and thanks to some combination of close wins and solid coaching, he has certainly kept the program afloat. But "staying afloat" with six to eight wins can only remain a goal for so long before Glen Mason Territory takes over and fans get awfully impatient.
Despite the graduation of Dan Persa, Northwestern will still have an offense capable of putting up lots of points with speedster Kain Colter under center. Colter, who is Northwestern's leading returning rusher and receiver after playing a number of roles in 2011, has a bevy of targets to throw to, including the former No. 1 WR recruit in the country in USC transfer Kyle Prater. But a shoddy defense that got beaten up last season should again hold them back:
The Wildcats have an interesting home schedule -- Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota, Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois -- that could produce anything between a 7-0 and 3-4 record. With a tough slate and a defense that really might not be too much better, we'll say that a fifth straight bowl would represent decent success.
Less than six wins would be a disappointment for a fanbase that has gotten accustomed to finishes above .500 in recent years. We'll learn a lot from the team's season-opener against a similarly talented team in Syracuse.
For more on the Wildcats, head over to Sippin' on Purple.