The monkey is gone, but the expectations have not gone away with it. In fact, they’ve only grown bigger.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald destroyed the plush monkey that symbolized Northwestern’s 64-year bowl-win drought after the 34-20 win over Mississippi State in last season’s Gator Bowl, the Wildcats’ first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
But, as Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday morning, the Wildcats aren’t going to settle for jumping just one hurdle.
“As I said as I put the Gator Bowl trophy up above my head, we're just getting started at Northwestern,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a lot of work. Talk is talk, and now it's about time for action.”
The biggest question, then, accompanying the Wildcats into the 2013 season is a simple one: What’s next?
“We're not satisfied with just going to bowl games anymore,” Fitzgerald said. “That's not acceptable. That's the expectation. And to be a consistent winner, to be a consistent postseason team and playing in bowl games is the expectation. Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day the expectation is to win championships.”
The sights are set high with this ever-growing Northwestern program. Fitzgerald and his players all pointed to the same goal: winning a Big Ten championship.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. In fact, the strength of the Wildcats’ 2013 schedule was quite the topic of conversation Wednesday. Not only will the Cats take on two BCS non-conference opponents for the second straight year but their conference schedule will be significantly more difficult, as well. The two-team draw from the Leaders Division figures to be much tougher than a season ago, when the Wildcats faced off with Penn State and Indiana. This season it’s Ohio State and Wisconsin, two teams that are projected to be among the conference’s very best. The Cats haven’t seen Wisconsin since 2010 and hasn’t faced Ohio State since 2008.
“This is probably the toughest schedule I’ve had since I’ve been here,” senior quarterback Kain Colter said. “That’s what we want. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to play the best. I haven’t played Ohio State, I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t played Wisconsin in a few years, I’m looking forward to it.”
Northwestern came close to an opportunity to compete for a title in 2012. They lost several tough contests last season that, had they swung the other way in the waning moments, might have put the Cats in the Big Ten title game. The team even adopted a motto of “5:03,” the amount of time it believed separated them from going to that game.
“It’s huge, winning 10 games, but the second we came in for offseason workouts, it was ‘5:03,’ the big thing for our offseason -- we were five minutes and three seconds away from being in the Big Ten title game,” senior defensive lineman Tyler Scott said. “It’s really pushed us in this offseason.”
While the Wildcats might not be familiar with this level of expectations, the team is very familiar with each other: Northwestern returns 15 starters from a year ago.
“Experience is crucial,” Colter said. “I look back at my first game, and it’s totally different. Once you get some experience, you’re able to settle down to actually play the way you want to play. It’s going to be good. And for the young guys, when you have experienced players around you, they’re able to bring you along. And so experience is crucial, and it will help us out a lot.”
To put it simply, the expectations are big, maybe bigger than they’ve ever been in Evanston. But no one places bigger expectations on the Wildcats than the man in charge.
“I'm happy to see that everyone's taking notice that we're doing okay, that we're progressing, that we're building in my opinion a program that our fans, our alumni, our students and everyone that's associated with Northwestern football can be proud of,” Fitzgerald said. “But we're far from where we're going to be. And to me that's the driving force in our program, is to take the necessary steps to be competitive for a championship.”