As Northwestern's losing streak has snowballed, the previously unthinkable has always been a possibility.
Now, though, as the inexplicable skid has reached seven games, just one more loss separates the Wildcats from a winless Big Ten campaign.
After last year's 10-win campaign, expectations were high and goals were, too, including competing for a Big Ten championship. But after a 4-0 start, it's been a nightmare for the Cats, one that keeps getting worse each week. The most recent loss, a 30-6 drubbing at the hands of Michigan State, knocked the Cats officially out of bowl eligibility. After a perfect September, a two-win conference slate was all that was needed to become eligible for postseason play, and even that would have seemed a disaster at the time. Now, it'd be preferable to the reality.
The season's final battle comes against Illinois in the annual rivalry game. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said at his weekly press conference Monday that you have to "throw the records out" in these types of games.
If only these two teams could do that this season.
If Northwestern was to suffer its eighth-straight loss Saturday in Champaign, it could serve as the season's most embarrassing. Not only would it cap the miserable streak, but it would come against a team that's likely the weakest opponent on the Cats' otherwise very difficult Big Ten schedule. Illinois just snapped its own nightmarish skid, winning a Big Ten game for the first time in 21 attempts. It's a team Northwestern destroyed a year ago, 50-14.
But this year has been much different than last year for the purple and white.
Fitzgerald's team will certainly be ready for Saturday's game with Illinois. It is a rivalry game, after all, and it's the last chance for this batch of Northwestern seniors to walk away with a win. But even the head coach knows the reality. He realizes the goals were not met this season, not even bowl eligibility, the one everyone assumed would have been easiest to achieve.
Much of Fitzgerald's talk Monday centered around the offseason and the following season. Despite the fact that there is one game left on the schedule, everyone seems to get it: There's little left to accomplish in 2013.
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One interesting question Fitzgerald was presented with was what will become of his coaching staff. Sometimes, in massively underwhelming seasons such as this, it's the assistant coaches that take the blame. But Fitzgerald wasn't buying that notion, saying he expected everyone to return for the following year.
"I make choices and decisions on all the things macro after the season," Fitzgerald said Monday. "Schematically, what we're doing. Fundamentally, what do we do, what do we need to improve? What do we need to study? What things did we like, what did we not like? All those types of things. And the staff would be included.
"I will say this: I don't think there's a staff that's done a better job in the country keeping the team together through what we've been through. We, collectively as a group, have won a lot of football games, and at the end of the day the responsibility of the way that we perform is on my shoulders. So I've got 100-percent confidence in our staff, each and every guy. ... If I had to make a decision today, I would fully anticipate our entire group being back next year."
It's no shock Fitzgerald was so willing to talk about next season. It allows him to put this one behind him as quickly as possible. But there's still one game left, one game to avoid a winless conference season. Though in the legacy of this worst-case scenario of a campaign, is there really a difference between one Big Ten win and zero?