This time last year, Northwestern players wore T-shirts that read "5:03," a reference to how much time away they were from an undefeated season in 2012.
No such motivational ploys are involved in the wardrobe this spring, as everyone on the Wildcats would mostly like to forget last season's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign. Still, if Pat Fitzgerald were in the mood for any shirt slogans this year, he could use a time stamp even lower than 5:03.
As bad as things went for Northwestern in 2013, it was still only a handful of plays away from at least matching its nine-win regular season from the previous year. The Wildcats lost on a Hail Mary at Nebraska. They lost in triple overtime to Michigan after the Wolverines pulled off a miraculous field goal at the end of regulation. They fell in overtime on the road at Iowa. They lost by three points to Minnesota and had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State.
We revisit those games not to renew Northwestern fans' heartburn but to bring up a point. If you're looking for a team capable of registering a major turnaround in 2014, look no farther than Evanston, Ill.
The defending Big Ten champions are a prime example of why. Michigan State lost five league games by a total of 13 points in 2012. When a team drops that many close games, it's often a case of bad luck and bad bounces that can turn the other way a year later. The Spartans didn't lose a Big Ten game in 2013 and proved that the 2012 season was merely a blip during an otherwise highly successful run.
Maybe an even better example for Northwestern is Iowa. Like the Wildcats, the Hawkeyes had been a perennial bowl team before stumbling through an uncharacteristic 4-8 season in 2012. Injuries played a big role in Iowa's one-year demise, particularly on the offensive line. With better health in 2013, the Hawkeyes came back strong with an 8-4 regular season and trip to the Outback Bowl.
Fitzgerald's team suffered a slew of crippling injuries last fall, including ones that sidelined their top two offensive weapons, quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. By early November, the Wildcats had 20 key players who were either out or severely compromised by bumps and bruises, strains and sprains.
If there's any upside to an injury rash, it's usually that it allows a lot of younger players to gain valuable playing time. Northwestern returns a lot of experience this season, with just about everybody back on offense except for Colter and receiver Rashad Lawrence, while the key losses on defense (defensive end Tyler Scott, middle linebacker Damien Proby) come at positions where ready-made replacements appear available.
Even without Colter, the Wildcats have a senior quarterback in Trevor Siemian who has played in every game the past two seasons. The team got only three games and 183 total yards last year from Mark, a dynamic tailback and kick returner who compiled over 2,100 all-purpose yards in 2012. Given an extra year of eligibility, Mark could have a huge impact on the offense if he can regain his health.
Northwestern was being toasted nationally after a 10-win season in 2012, and it had risen up to No. 15 in the coaches' poll last year before the primetime, "GameDay" loss to Ohio State. Last season's results pressed pause on the program's upward trajectory, but that doesn't mean it has stopped.
The Wildcats will be challenged by a 2014 schedule that includes a nonconference home game against Northern Illinois (Sept. 6) and a much-anticipated matchup at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), plus crossover games against Michigan and Penn State from the East Division. But presumed West favorites Nebraska and Wisconsin both come to Ryan Field. And in what looks like a wide-open division race, Northwestern could certainly factor in.
All this assumes the Wildcats can avoid the same problems as a year ago, and with 11 key players being held out of spring practice, getting healthy is the first order of business. But can things really go as badly as they did in 2013?
"If we didn't have bad luck," Fitzgerald said before the Michigan game, "we wouldn't have any luck at all."
Even a semblance of good luck this fall could make Northwestern the Big Ten's best bet for a turnaround season.