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Monday, August 11, 2014
Best case/Worst case: Northwestern

By Austin Ward

Football practice is in full swing, and we're just three weeks away from kickoff. To get you ready, we're looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

Do not view these as predictions in any way, shape or form. 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.

Up next: Northwestern.

Best case

The choice in wording allowed for an easy joke, but it was Pat Fitzgerald who was the one smiling and laughing as the regular season came to a close.

Northwestern had proven without a doubt that it was one of the most unified -- not unionized -- teams in the country, turning a bond fortified through all the attention inside and outside of the program  into a motivator that pushed it all the way to a division title.

Claiming that West crown wasn’t easy, of course, as seasons rarely are for the Wildcats. They started showing their upside early by cruising through three nonconference games at home, surviving Venric Mark's suspension with ease. But they hadn’t made many true believers until going on the road and showing off what the revamped, versatile offense could really do with Trevor Siemian at quarterback as the Wildcats overpowered Penn State to serve notice to the Big Ten.

That momentum continued into October as Northwestern answered a question about its defense, unleashing a unit that clearly enjoyed playing at full strength as it slowed down Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon enough in a 31-20 win to take over the inside track in the West.

There was a hiccup at Iowa that tightened up the race, and a rare November game outside the league didn’t go Northwestern’s way either as it came up short against resurgent Notre Dame on the road. But the Wildcats bounced back quickly and trounced Purdue and Illinois to clinch the division and cap their turnaround with a trip to the Big Ten title game.

Michigan State’s vaunted defense may have held Northwestern in check and kept the Wildcats from adding the most coveted trophy in the league, but Fitzgerald was smiling again before the season was finally over after a Capital One bowl victory for a team that was once again famous just for what it did on the field.

Worst case

The issue was supposed to all be in the past, but there simply was no escape for Northwestern. And while they might not have ended up unionized when the final ruling came out, the entire team clearly wasn’t on the same page off the field -- and it showed up on it.

With a handful of players vocally expressing opinions that didn’t match up with the final verdict, dissension within the ranks took its toll on a distracted roster that entered the season expecting to contend in the West Division but instead found itself reeling and out of the race by the middle of October.

After opening the season with three comfortable wins against overmatched opponents, the lack of focus was plain to see in a disastrous road trip to Penn State that included too many penalties, a handful of turnovers and a defense that didn’t put up much of a fight in the front seven.

The issues on defense continued all month long against teams that had no problem running the football even against stout units, let alone one looking so similar to the Northwestern team that finished ninth in the Big Ten in rushing defense a year ago. The Wildcats are relentlessly mocked with strike signs, and the defense often looks like it would prefer to stand in a picket line than take on the league's best tailbacks.

Wisconsin and Melvin Gordon racked up yardage at will in a decisive victory in Evanston. David Cobb did the same as Minnesota won at home, and Ameer Abdullah put the nail in Northwestern’s coffin in the West Division as Nebraska cancelled all the parties on homecoming.

There would be a couple bright spots with Fitzgerald rallying the troops for a November surge, knocking off Michigan to keep bowl eligibility within reach. And the Wildcats would get there despite falling at Notre Dame, edging Purdue and Illinois to cap a trying regular season on a high note.

But the union questions and the distractions kept popping up throughout preparations for the Detroit Lions Bowl, sending the Wildcats into the offseason with one more loss and without any satisfying answers.