ranked No. 15 or 16 in the country, depending on which poll you favor. Fresh off its first bowl win in more than six decades and returning most of the roster that ended the drought, Northwestern appears poised to jump in the Big Ten's upper echelon on a consistent basis, quiet the naysayers (of which I know many), and maybe take a run at the Rose Bowl for the first time in 18 years even if they probably should have taken a run last season.
We're not even the only ones who think so. This much was made clear to me in an exchange I had with an Ohio State fan while waiting to use the bathroom at the upper west side sports bar NU's New York alumni chooses to congregate at each Saturday. But it was that very same conversation, offered with subtle unknowing condescension, that illustrated what can be so frustrating about convincing outsiders of why you believe in this team.
"Northwestern's pretty good this year."
"Yeah, we're pretty excited."
"Yeah, I even think they could go to the Rose Bowl. You know, since they might finish second when Ohio State goes to the national championship game."
The point was offered without humor, without sarcasm and with total belief. We are a force to be reckoned with now, but that force is still equivalent to the little engine that could. Most people, no matter how clued in to the empirical evidence of wins and losses they might be, still refuse to believe the Wildcats are ready to consistently play with the big boys. I suppose there is plenty of legitimate reason to hold that belief. After all, Northwestern's football history before even a few years ago was an ignominious one at best. There were fits and starts and flirtations with success in the 40s, 50s and 60s as men like Otto Graham, Pappy Waldorf and Ara Parseghian came through Evanston, but by the late 1960s a dark age set in that wouldn't end until the mid-90s and included such horrors as a record 34-game losing streak and Dennis Green.
Northwestern turned it around and had a miracle Rose Bowl run in 1995, and since then the school has been at least a mildly successful contender, but it has hardly established anything close to consistent top-15 or even top-20 credentials. The chance, finally, to serve notice that those days are over, however, comes this weekend.
Ohio State is coming to town.
Northwestern has had its share of success against Big Ten behemoths or periodic contenders like Michigan, Penn State or Iowa, but wins -- or even close losses -- against Ohio State have been elusive. In fact, the Wildcats have just one victory against the Buckeyes in the last four decades, an overtime thriller in 2004 that I, a sophomore in college at the time, was lucky enough to see after a day of fall boozing and a power hour that almost convinced me I went to a real football school. The win was thrilling, it was euphoric and until the Giants won the Super Bowl three years later it was the best night of my life.
It was, however, not a harbinger of things to come. That season Northwestern finished 6-6 and continued toiling in mediocrity for the next few seasons before a rebirth under coach Pat Fitzgerald started to take hold. Just how far that rebirth can take them however is subject to debate. The Cats have managed to gain a modicum of respect as a national program to this point, and the abundance of NU alums in the sports media more or less assures you'll hear one story after another about the program's remarkable ascendancy despite its academic handicaps (which is kind of a straw man excuse for mediocrity as it is).
But can they really separate themselves from the chaff? Can they really establish themselves as a conference title or even national contender and burnish their Rose Bowl credentials? Or are they just, uh, not quite that good?
Saturday night we'll find out, and we'll get the chance to do so against an Ohio State secondary that is beaten up, and with Northwestern's Venric Mark finally back in the saddle at running back. NU's defense has played well and could give fits to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who despite obvious athletic talent has a habit of taking too many sacks, and with NU's own quarterback tandem of Trevor Simian and Kain Colter playing well enough that OSU-themed blogs are anxious, Northwestern hosting in front of what should be a raucous home crowd and the Cats fully rested after a bye week, well, the ingredients are there for the potential upset (which given the 5.5-point spread wouldn't even be much of one).
ESPN GameDay is setting up camp on the Lakefill in Evanston. It may not be the biggest game in program history, but it's certainly the biggest game since Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl 18 years ago, which, not coincidentally, is the last time GameDay bothered to come to Evanston. The hype has certainly been building, whether it be in comic fashion on in the manner that makes you want to run through a wall. As a loyal fan, it's been all I can do not to think about it until Saturday so I don't drive myself nuts with anticipation. Fortunately, the start of the Devils' 2013-14 season tonight will help with that, but football, the "amateur" variety, is still going to be first and foremost on my cerebral cortex.
I can only hope the students in Evanston are in for a special night Saturday like the one I had in 2004. But more importantly, if they do get that special night, I hope this time it sticks.
If we're lucky, maybe someday those nights won't feel so special anymore.
Last week: 6-9-0
Buffalo (+3.5) over CLEVELAND
New Orleans (even) over CHICAGO
CINCINNATI (-1) over New England
GREEN BAY (-7) over Detroit
Kansas City (-3) over TENNESSEE
Seattle (-2.5) over INDIANAPOLIS
Jacksonville (+11.5) over ST. LOUIS
Baltimore (+3) over MIAMI
NY GIANTS (-2) over Philadelphia
Carolina (-2) over ARIZONA
Denver (-7.5) over DALLAS
SAN FRANCISCO (-6.5) over Houston
San Diego (-4.5) over OAKLAND
ATLANTA (-10) over NY Jets