Bowl victory the next step for Northwestern

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- When it comes to perception and reality, Northwestern seems to have a much tougher time with the former than the latter.

Perception continues to be Northwestern's toughest opponent as it tries to elevate its national profile. The Wildcats are still often chained to their horrendous predecessors, the ones that set NCAA records for futility and won two or fewer Big Ten games in 20 out of 21 seasons between 1974-94.

Northwestern's reality is much more encouraging, at least since the program's breakthrough season of 1995. The Wildcats are 83-79 since '95, hardly the stuff of greatness but far from the dark ages. Since 2003, Northwestern is 24-24 in Big Ten play, which ranks right in the middle (sixth) of the league.

Still, as the Wildcats come off of a 9-4 season and return eight starters from a defense that essentially won most of those games, they're a team that sparks doubts. Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota are deemed the sleeper teams in the Big Ten this year, while many think Northwestern, which beat three of those teams in 2008, could backslide and miss the postseason.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has a solution for the perception problem.

"To eliminate the questions, that's what you have to do, win bowl games," Fitzgerald said Wednesday at media day. "We've been on the national stage a bunch the last 13, 14 years. We've won our share and we've also come up short.

"It's definitely a mountaintop we want to get over."

Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose, a stretch of six postseason contests. The Wildcats were the biggest underdog of the bowl season last year against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl and outplayed the Tigers for much of the game before falling in overtime.

"You walk out of the locker room after the Missouri game and people say, 'What a great game,'" Fitzgerald said. "We're way beyond that."

History doesn't favor Northwestern in its quest to return to the postseason. It has only happened once, in 1995 and 1996, as Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to consecutive Big Ten titles.

Wildcats players refuse to look too far ahead, but they know if they get another chance in December or January, they need to capitalize.

"That's a very big step," senior safety Brendan Smith said. "But for us to do that, we need to win Game 1."