In college football's post-World War II modern era, Northwestern's list of outright conference championships in the Big Ten record book takes up one line of type.
This season, the Wildcats think they can double that.
The man in charge — head coach Pat Fitzgerald — should have some idea whether that's possible. The former linebacker was the national defensive player of the year when Northwestern finished atop the Big Ten at 8-0 in 1995.
Last season, in Fitzgerald's seventh as coach, the Wildcats went 10-3 overall and played in a bowl game for the sixth time in eight years.
What was different this time was a bowl victory — 34-20 over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl — for the first time in 64 years.
Good, Fitzgerald says. Just not good enough.
“We could just keep going to bowl games, but that's not acceptable anymore,” he said. “We've got guys who can make plays in all three phases.
“There's an expectation level now not to just win football games, but to compete and win championships. We've got the bowl championship. The next step is to put the big trophy in the case.”
Northwestern got closer to landing the big trophy last year than many remember.
In each of the Wildcats' three losses — 39-28 at Penn State, 29-28 to Nebraska and 38-31 in overtime at Michigan — they held a double-digit lead in the second half. One staffer in the football office calculated that they were within 5 minutes and 3 seconds of going undefeated.
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Thus, the “5:03” on the practice shirts worn this winter and spring.
“I knew we were close,” senior defensive end Tyler Scott said. “Those three games we lost, we just had to make one more play or one more stop.”
Once Fitzgerald and his assistants got off the road in February, they held their annual goal-setting session.
“So we were 5 minutes and 3 seconds from being undefeated,” he said. “The staff discussion was, 'Well, are we that far away or are we that close? We have to decide.'”
The roster indicates closer than further away.
Seventeen starters are back, including alternating quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, who combined for 27 touchdowns.
“I truly believe Kain and Trevor can lead us to a championship,” Fitzgerald said.
Also returning are 1,366-yard rusher Venric Mark, who was voted an All-America kick returner; three of the top four receivers; three of the top four tacklers; and place-kicker Jeff Budzien, whose only miss in 70 kicks last season was a 53-yard field goal that would have beaten Nebraska.
Fitzgerald said his goal since he took over eight years ago was to improve Northwestern's team speed and athleticism enough to go from winner to consistent winner to consistent champion.
“We're moving through that process,” he said. “We're not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically, but I think we're really close.”
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