- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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We're plodding our way through the best case/worst case scenarios for each Big Ten team (promise to finish up before the season). Up next: Northwestern.
As a reminder, these pieces are not in any way predictions. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.
Let's check out the potential highs and lows for the Purple and White.
The win total begins to climb again as Northwestern makes a serious push for the Legends division title. Kain Colter dazzles, the defense shows a pulse and a pop, attendance soars and the school's trustees wise up and grant coach Pat Fitzgerald his dream lakefront football facility.
It begins with an impressive road win at Syracuse as Northwestern improves to 7-0 in openers under Fitzgerald. Colter passes for two touchdowns and runs for two more, and the defense forces a pair of turnovers in a 31-17 triumph. All Syracuse alumni working at ESPN are forced to wear purple to work.
Northwestern returns home to face Vanderbilt and affirms itself as the better brainier program. After the game, four Vanderbilt recruits switch their commitments to Northwestern. 'Dores coach James Franklin walks past the Northwestern family section, spots some wives of Wildcats assistants and tries to recruit four of Fitzgerald's aides. They all turn him down.
Easy wins follow against Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana.
The squad stays perfect in its Big Ten road opener at Penn State, as USC transfer Kyle Prater hauls in two touchdowns and the defense smothers Wildcat-killer Matt McGloin. Northwestern improves to 7-0 by beating Minnesota, and enters the Top 25.
Chicago is buzzing about Northwestern as the team returns home, while Illinois drops to 1-6 under new coach Tim Beckman. Nebraska comes to town with its enormous traveling party, but Northwestern fans flood the turnstiles and make it a 50-50 split in the the stands. Colter torments the Huskers yet again, and Northwestern stuffs Taylor Martinez at the goal line to prevail 28-24. Chicagoans start to greet one another with, "Go Cats."
Any thought of a letdown the following the week disappears as recent nemesis Iowa visits Evanston. PETA members throw animal blood on James Vandenberg as he gets off the team bus, shattering his confidence. Vandenberg throws three interceptions, and Northwestern cuts through a soft Hawkeyes defense for a 10-point win. In the closing seconds, Wildcats fans unfold a banner reading, "Order restored: just another win against justIowa."
After the game, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gives Fitzgerald the key to the city. The Illinois' "Our State. Our Team" billboards contain spelling and grammatical errors.
Northwestern's run ends with a road loss at Michigan, followed by another at Michigan State. But the Wildcats take out their anger out on Illinois, thumping the Illini by 35. Beckman weeps in the closing seconds. The Northwestern band plays the entire score from "Chicago" during the second half.
Colter earns Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, while Fitzgerald takes home Coach of the Year and then signs a lifetime contract. Northwestern beats South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl for its first postseason win since 1949. Illinois finishes 2-10, just below Iowa (3-9). The Northwestern trustees approve an on-campus football complex and stadium upgrades.
The win total continues to drop and the streak of bowl appearances comes to a crashing halt. The offense stalls, the defense crumbles, the facilities campaign fizzles and Illinois rules the town -- and the state.
The season begins ominously as Syracuse football retires Greg Paulus' number before the opener, thanking him for beating Northwestern in 2009. Syracuse then goes on to a 25-point win, dissecting Northwestern's secondary for 350 yards. Northwestern alums Mike Wilbon and Darren Rovell are forced to sing Syracuse's fight song on ESPN. Vogue magazine declares the Wildcats new uniforms uglier than Maryland's 2011 threads.
Vanderbilt continues the misery the following week with a 10-point in Evanston, leading to numerous stories about how Stanford and Vanderbilt are showing how academically focused schools can still win big in football. Franklin walks past the Wildcats family section and shakes his head. Fitzgerald stews.
The Wildcats win their next three but backslide in State College, as McGloin lights them up for 400 yards and four touchdowns. Fitzgerald spends the second half searching for Rob Bolden. Illinois enters the Top 25.
A heartbreaking loss follows at TCF Bank Stadium, as a Colter fumble in the closing minutes leads to Minnesota's game-winning touchdown. Opposing fans take over Ryan Field the following two weeks as Northwestern is pummeled by Nebraska and then Iowa. Herky puts a Hawkeye helmet on the Wildcat statue in the fourth quarter.
Two more ugly losses follow, and Illinois completes the torture with a 30-point win in the regular-season finale. Beckman and the Illini celebrate a Leaders division title and are greeted after the game by President Obama, Mike Ditka and Oprah.
Miffed by a 3-9 season, the trustees decide to nix the facilities plan. They divert the funds to build a second nano fabrication lab. Illinois and Iowa play for the Big Ten championship. The winner meets Stanford in the national title game.
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