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Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Best case-worst case rewind: Northwestern

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

The best case-worst case rewind marches on with ... Northwestern.

In case you missed it: Northwestern's best case-worst case.

Best-case synopsis: The Wildcats reload at the offensive skill positions and actually increase their production on that side of the ball. Led by pass rusher Corey Wootton, the defense improves in Year 2 under coordinator Mike Hankwitz and NU surges out to an 8-0 start. Northwestern wins its third straight game against Iowa and finishes with a 10-2 regular-season record. The Wildcats advance to the Outback Bowl and beat Arkansas for their first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Worst-case synopsis: The offense takes a major step back as new players struggle in premier roles. Quarterback Mike Kafka can't avoid interceptions and never gets comfortable as a passer. The defense struggles with injuries and poor production, making 2008 look like the exception rather than the rule. Northwestern notches no impressive victories and drops its final four games to miss the postseason. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald strongly considers leaving for Notre Dame, raising doubts about his future in Evanston.

You can't handle the truth: (quotes from the original post) "The Capital One Bowl predictably passes over Northwestern, but the Outback Bowl, which snubbed the team last year, selects the Wildcats." ... "The defense keeps pace." ... "Northwestern heads back to the postseason." ... "Wootton and several other contributors go down with injuries." ... "Northwestern heads to Syracuse and performs much like it did at Duke last year, except with a worse result." ... "A week later, Minnesota avenges back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Northwestern." ... "The Wildcats rebound against Purdue and Miami (Ohio)." ... "Attendance struggles again at Ryan Field."

Lies, lies, lies: "Northwestern gets through a season without special teams costing it a game." ... "Surprisingly good crowds turn up at Ryan Field to watch Northwestern crush Towson and Eastern Michigan. The team heads to Syracuse and thumps the Orange for the second straight year, as Corey Wootton sacks Greg Paulus four times. Northwestern then delivers more heartbreak to Minnesota." ... "The Wildcats start 6-0 by trouncing Miami (Ohio)." ... Northwestern wins its first bowl since the 1949 Rose and winds up 11-2." ... "Northwestern finalizes a 2011 game at Wrigley Field and sees home attendance increase by 25 percent." ... "Once again, Northwestern takes a major step back on offense with a new quarterback." ... "Northwestern drops its final four games, including a heartbreaker to Wisconsin at home, to miss the postseason despite a cushy schedule."

Reality check: Northwestern ended up somewhere in the middle record-wise, but a 3-0 November (two wins vs. ranked teams) and a surprising invitation to the Outback Bowl created a best-case feel around the program. Kafka, known more for his legs than his arms before the season, blossomed into an All-Big Ten quarterback and led an offense with other surprise stars like wideout Zeke Marskhausen. He didn't get much help from the run game, which had been a strong point in past years. An injury plagued defense struggled early but got it together down the stretch, as Wootton, quiet for most of the fall, made the biggest play of the season at Iowa. The Wildcats couldn't complete a furious rally in the Outback Bowl, as their kicking game let them down again.