Commentary: The Forgotten Wildcats?
by Jonathan Hodges

This past week, NU fans watched the Wildcats attain a 5-0 record for the first time since 1962 and hold the longest winning streak since the 1996 Big Ten Championship season.  Northwestern defeated a strong Iowa team on the road in a tough venue; the defense proved itself against a "real" opponent, and the offense finally got things moving as CJ Bacher led the way with 284 passing yards and 3 TDs.  NU seems to have a ton of momentum in its favor heading into a bye week where it will prepare for a good MSU team that the 'Cats will face at home.  Overall, things just seem to be going in the Wildcats' favor, and the record in itself should bring lots of attention to NU.

But, when the rankings were released on Sunday, NU once again found itself unranked in both polls (50 votes short of 25th spot in the Coaches' Poll, and 75 votes shy of 25th in the AP Poll); and both nationally and locally, the 'Cats are garnering little attention, despite the historic start to the year.  In fact, even teams similar to NU (i.e. Vanderbilt at 5-0) are carrying more respect.  So, this begs the question, why have the 'Cats been forgotten?

- Strength of Schedule:  The fact is that NU's strength of schedule has not been impressive thus far; warranted or not.  Syracuse isn't a good team, with their only win being against an FCS team (Northeastern); although they came close against Pitt last week, they haven't looked promising so far.  Duke, meanwhile, is starting to turn a few heads after racking up a 3-1 record with wins over Navy and Virginia, but, again, they haven't faced the meat of their schedule and at the start of the year everyone had them relegated to the ACC basement again.  It will take some more wins to wake people up to the quality of that team this year and the importance of NU's win in Durham.  Ohio just won their first game of the year, albeit against an FCS team; many have overlooked them due to their schedule, but they were competitive in all 4 of their losses - losing by one score or less on 3 occasions.  And Iowa was also overlooked going into the year after a disappointing 2007, and wasn't showing up on many people's radar, despite an improved team that is rather good and should be competing for a bowl bid; their 3 wins over Maine, FIU, and Iowa State don't exactly drum up a lot of excitement on a national scale, though.

So, while the 'Cats have beat some reasonable teams, there is a good reason why the national attention just isn't there - NU's opponents haven't exactly been garnering a lot of attention themselves.  What's the solution?  Do what Kansas did last year and win all of the games that are relegated to the "easy" category, and when everyone wakes up and find the team undefeated after 7 or 8 games, the attention will come.

- Others' Strength of Schedule:  NU has played a relatively easy schedule to start the year, even considering that Duke is a respectable team and Iowa is a good team that was a bit underrated.  But the fact is that a TON of other teams are also playing easy schedules and have faced FCS competition sometime in the first few weeks, which in almost every case has meant a win.  Therefore, what we have on a national level is a glut of teams with 3, 4, or 5 wins to none or one loss; 27 teams have at least 4 wins through week 5 and a whopping 49 teams with 1 or fewer losses.  So, the fact is that there's a lot of competition on a national level for NU with other teams that are doing well in terms of wins and losses.  While many other teams have not yet been tested, that means that those previously ranked or on the cusp get the benefit of the doubt and end up in the rankings while those fighting from the bottom (in NU's case) will continue to be left off until those above them fall.  That time will come now that tougher conference play is upon us, and expect to see that fallout over the next few weeks.

- Other Stories:  In college football itself, there are plenty of other stories; for instance, big upsets of USC, Georgia, and Florida in one weekend, along with up-and-comer stories of teams like Vanderbilt and Wake Forest (who themselves were upset this weekend) - mostly because they have already faced "name" schools (South Carolina and Florida State, respectively) and won.

In terms of local coverage, the fact is that Chicago is a pro sports town, and that means the Bears come first, followed by the Cubs and White Sox.  Right now the Bears are coming off of a big Sunday night win, the Cubs are in the playoffs, and the Sox are fighting for their playoff chances - so that leaves little room in the local sports arena for the 'Cats.  And with the MLB playoffs looming, we'll have to see how much room there is for NU going forward.

Once again, the solution here is to win games, and the respect will come.  If NU beats some of its upcoming competition (MSU, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota), the proximity and familiarity of opponents at a minimum will wake up some people in the vicinity.

Unlike 1995, 2000, and even 2005, there have not been marquee, ranked opponents that NU has faced and beaten early on (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and, again, Wisconsin, respectively).  Wilcat fans knew that this season's schedule was set up with easier games early on and increasing in difficulty as the season progressed and was the perfect opportunity for NU to "sneak up" on the country (like Kansas did last season).  Fortunately, NU got over the first major hurdle, Iowa, and set itself up nicely going into the bye week.  Now it's time to continue winning football games and the respect will come.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.