Thursday, October 18, 2012

NFL Picks Week Seven: The ultimate test of Nap Time's impact

Oh, those plucky Wildcats. They are a pip, are they not? See anyone who has had the misfortune to call themselves a fan of Northwestern athletics has come to terms with two very clear, immutable truths.

A) Northwestern will never make the NCAA Basketball tournament. Ever.
B) Northwestern's football team will be pretty good even though no one else believes it, and said team will always lose when it finally has an opportunity to prove it is a decent team.

Don't believe me on that last one? I've got a whole host of bitter, painful losses that could back that up. There was another cruel, bitter reminder of this just two weeks ago when my Wildcats decided to wave bye-bye to an 11-point fourth-quarter lead when we were ranked for the first time in four years at Penn State, a school, that two years ago rallied from a 21-point deficit against us to give Joe Paterno his 400th* career win. In fact, in the 10 seasons in which I have faithfully watched Northwestern fling the pigskin, I have seen a track record littered with these kinds of debilitating setbacks.

It's what we do.

That loss at Penn State two weeks ago was particularly irksome since a win would have given Northwestern its first 6-0 start in a while, and by "in a while" I mean "five decades". Conveniently, that 6-0 start was also the last time Northwestern was ranked No. 1 in the country. Now, I know 6-0 starts are not exactly as exciting as they used to be since most schools have a tendency to open up the season with four cupcake non-conference opponents. Northwestern's 2012 schedule wasn't too different, although three of the four teams the Cats played, Boston College, Vanderbilt and Syracuse are all in BCS conferences, but regardless of who was on the schedule, a 6-0 start would have not only meant a national ranking above 20 for the first time that I can remember, but the inside track at Northwestern's first real Big Ten title shot in oh..... a decade or so, and maybe their last decent chance in a while.

Some of you might think I'm dreaming and being fanciful, but when you look at the facts, I'm not wrong. To wit: The Big Ten is down on the whole this season. Michigan State's pre-season talk is appearing to be a mirage, Michigan is talented but not yet proven, Wisconsin is having an off season despite its record, Illinois is horrible, Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue are average at best and Indiana is playing like Indiana, and arguably the best two teams in the conference, and certainly in the Leaders division, Ohio State and Penn State, aren't bowl eligible this year due to sanctions. Add into that that Northwestern's offense has been running amok most of the season on opponents' defenses, NU's defense is actually not so awful, and that the Wildcats don't play OSU or Wisconsin this year and, well, the road is about as light as it's ever going to be. And when one considers that next year OSU and Wisconsin return to the schedule while Indiana and Purdue leave it, well, it's certainly the lightest it will be in a while.

Oh, but there's one team I haven't mentioned yet and with good reason. That would be those adorable Nebraska Cornhuskers. See when the Huskers came into the Big Ten for the 2011 season, this was seen as a big issue for the Wildcats -- another major program to trifle with as they fought for respectability. I wasn't overly pleased with the news when I heard it initially, but it became far more palatable last November when, as I rushed to whatever TV I could find in Boston, Northwestern unexpectedly knocked off the Huskers in their first ever conference meeting in Lincoln.

This brought some surprise excitement to what had been a drudgery of a season for the Wildcats, but one year later, the Cats are in the midst of what could be something special -- and here come those Huskers again. Nebraska is making its way to Evanston for the first time as a Big Ten member and after last season's stunner the Huskers would almost certainly love to spoil the magic before it gets fully underway. This Saturday is a test for the Wildcats and for the fan base to know if, somehow, Northwestern actually is for real this season.

I, predictably, am anxious as all hell.

That shouldn't surprise many of you, but my anxiety comes less from concern over whether or not Northwestern will win the game and more from the fact that, well, I actually feel pretty good about it. Mobile quarterbacks have been known to cause the Wildcats trouble, and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez has some legs to work with, but Nebraska's defense has also given up an average of 357 yards per game on the ground away from Lincoln this year. That should have the Wildcats salivating given the rushing prowess of Kain Colter and Venric Mark, each of whom has eight touchdowns on the ground this season, good for third in the conference. That kind of rushing versatility has me seeing visions of Northwestern running wild all afternoon.

And that makes me nervous as all get out.

Either way, I am just saying Nebraska shouldn't sleep on Northwestern, not just because the Wildcats might prove with a win that they're a force to be reckoned with, but perhaps more importantly because Northwestern is already sleeping on itself. Yeah, you read that right, the Wildcats, a team of full-grown mature men will have a regimented nap time this Saturday in hopes of being at peak alertness for the 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff.

It's certainly one of the stranger addendums to a team's gameday schedule that I've ever seen, but if it works, I hope they will be putting a nap time into every game day itinerary. Saturday will be the first test not just for the nap-infused itinerary, but for the Wildcats as a whole. This is a game that could finally serve notice that Northwestern is a serious contender and a legitimate force to be reconed with. And we all may know what the thank if they come out alert and refreshed. If it does work maybe, just maybe, Northwestern can nap all the way to the Big Ten Championship Game.

Time for some picks.

Last week: 7-7-0
Season: 45-43-3

SAN FRANCISCO (-7) over Seattle
BUFFALO (-3) over Tennessee
INDIANAPOLIS (-1) ove Cleveland
Green Bay (-6) over ST. LOUIS
Arizona (+6) over MINNESOTA
NY GIANTS (-6) over Washington
New Orleans (-3) over TAMPA BAY
CAROLINA (+1) over Dallas
Baltimore (+7) over HOUSTON
OAKLAND (-4) over Jacksonville
NY Jets (+11) over NEW ENGLAND
CINCINNATI (+2) over Pittsburgh
Detroit (+7) over CHICAGO

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