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Wildcats exceed expectations

| Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Week five in college football certainly didn’t lack interesting headlines. Top contenders Michigan State and Ohio State both survived lackluster performances against mediocre opponents, Florida suggested for the first time since Urban Meyer was in Gainesville that the Gators might be legit, and four top-10 teams fell for the first time.

Amidst surprising SEC thrashings and controversial two-point conversion decision making Saturday, No. 13 Northwestern quietly trounced Minnesota, 27-0, to move its record to 5-0.

Following the win, the Wildcats moved up to 13th in the AP poll Sunday. And while the national headlines may be telling you otherwise, Northwestern is the most intriguing team in college football right now.

Coming into the season, expectations for the Wildcats were understandably low. While 2014 featured wins against Wisconsin and Notre Dame, the Wildcats failed to make a bowl game and wound up finishing with a discouraging 5-7 record for the second straight season. Once a hot commodity in any major program’s job search, Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald started to look incapable of getting his team a spot in even the unremarkable bowls.

In addition to these shortcomings, Northwestern had to replace its quarterback with a redshirt freshman, Clayton Thorson, who made his first career start in the team’s season opener against Stanford.
Despite no reason to believe in them, the Wildcats raised some eyebrows with their season-opening 16-6 win against Stanford. And while some (myself included) might have originally attributed the victory to Stanford’s offensive inadequacies, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal have gone on to score 40-plus in each of the last three weeks against Pac-12 opponents (including USC and Arizona), which seems to suggest that Stanford’s offense is certainly competent.

Northwestern followed the Stanford victory with a win over a solid Duke team on the road and, without much publicity, won each of its next three games, culminating with a shutout of Minnesota on Saturday.

At 5-0 with a ranking of 13, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the Wildcats. This is especially true given that Northwestern is sure to be tested in the upcoming weeks. Next on the schedule is a visit to Michigan, where Jim Harbaugh, unsurprisingly, already has the once-struggling program relevant again and in the early stages of what seems to be an inevitable run of dominance in the coming years. Following Michigan, Northwestern faces Iowa, which — like the Wildcats — has surprised many with a 5-0 start.

Should Northwestern win each of those games, it will almost certainly be in the top 10 and (dare I say it?) a legitimate playoff contender.

Of course, none of this means Northwestern is actually for real. Just a week and a half removed from a five-point win over lowly Ball State, it’s hard to say the Wildcats have been dominant at all times this season. It’s also hard to forget this season’s comparability to Northwestern’s season two years ago, when the Wildcats won their first four games and were garnering respect in the polls before subsequently dropping their next six games and missing the postseason altogether.

However, with an electric running back in sophomore Justin Jackson and a defense capable of shutting down Stanford and shutting out Big Ten opponents, Northwestern is definitely able to amplify its early-season success moving forward. Regardless, given their quiet ascension up the national polls and matchups against ranked teams in the next two weeks, the Wildcats are currently the most intriguing team in college football.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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