Don't worry, Pat Fitzgerald will figure out a way to navigate Northwestern's incredibly difficult start to 2019
We’re going to do this Northwestern again, aren’t we?
When the Associated Press poll was released on Monday, the front portion of the Wildcats’ schedule looked even more daunting than before. The names of the teams alone presented a tough challenge. But now there are a lot of numbers in from of those opponents.
In the first seven games of the 2019 season, Northwestern will play six teams ranked in the AP top 25. Three of those games are on the road. Here’s what the first nine weeks look like for the Wildcats:
- Aug. 31: at #25 Stanford
- Sept. 7: OFF
- Sept. 14: vs. UNLV
- Sept. 21: vs. #18 Michigan State
- Sept. 28: at #19 Wisconsin
- Oct. 5: at #24 Nebraska
- Oct. 12: OFF
- Oct. 18: vs. #5 Ohio State
- October 26: vs. #20 Iowa
Woof. Even for the reigning B1G West champions…woof.
A quick glance at the schedule and you’re left scratching your head trying to circle the wins for Northwestern. And, outside of the home opener against UNLV on Sept. 14, are there really any you feel comfortable marking in permanent ink?
I didn’t think so.
Those first seven games leave us all wondering how on earth Northwestern stands a chance in the B1G West. It’s a big reason why some are picking the Wildcats to finish fifth (or worse) in a division they just conquered last year. There have even been some murmurings about this not being a bowl-eligible team by the end of the year.
We make all those assumptions completely ignoring the fact that we’ve seen this movie before. Looking at the schedule, we’re all thinking “3-4 is probably a best-case scenario for Northwestern.” Come November, would you really be surprised if Pat Fitzgerald had his team 4-3? Or 5-2? Hell, why not even 6-1? The Cats did beat each of those B1G teams last year, aside from Ohio State.
Northwestern escaping that nine-week stretch with a winning record might seem like a crazy statement. But you know what else is crazy? Some of these recent accomplishments from Fitzgerald’s bunch:
- Winners in 15 of last 16 B1G regular season games
- 9 straight wins from the 2017 season into 2018 season
- A 21-9 record vs. B1G West opponents since 2014 (East-West divisions created)
- Three 9+ win seasons in the last four years (two of which were 10-win years)
- A winning record vs. every B1G West team since 2014
- A 10-11 record vs. ranked opponents in last five seasons
All of that is really impressive, especially at a place where football was once an afterthought. Now, Fitzgerald’s program is operating as one of the most consistent teams in the B1G West.
Sure, Northwestern has had those puzzling moments over the last five years. The Wildcats dropped four-straight games in the heart of the 2014 season. They lost to Western Michigan and Illinois State in back-to-back weeks to begin the 2016 campaign. Last year, they were 1-3 before ratting off wins in seven of their final eight games to win the West.
RELATED: Wildcats Respond to AP Poll Snub
Those are all forgettable moments.
More times than not, though, Fitzgerald and his teams have been able to figure things out. When Northwestern’s back has been against the wall — anytime it’s overlooked and counted out — the Wildcats seem to respond.
I could throw out statistical figures or name the talented personnel that will help Northwestern reach the other side of the front-loaded gauntlet still on its feet, but I don’t really need to. Yes, those things are obviously important, but Fitzgerald and company have made it work for essentially five years.
Regardless of stats, regardless of personnel on the field, Northwestern has found a way to consistently be near the top of the B1G West and make a postseason push. As daunting as the first two months of the slate look, Fitzgerald and the Wildcats will find a way to be on the positive side of the .500 mark when its over. Maybe even comfortably.
And we’ll all be scratching our heads again, wondering how exactly they pulled it off.