Best case-worst case: Northwestern

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The seventh installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.


The offense reloads, the defense keeps pace, Pat Fitzgerald fends off suitors and Northwestern heads back to the postseason.

Despite losing multiyear starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, the Wildcats don't miss a beat on offense and actually increase their production. Mike Kafka provides the true dual threat quarterback that the spread offense demands, while Tyrell Sutton-clone Arby Fields headlines the rushing attack. The defense gets even better in Year 2 under coordinator Mike Hankwitz, and Northwestern gets through a season without special teams costing it a game.

The Wildcats cruise through their first two weeks as Kafka and the other first-time starters on offense gain confidence. Surprisingly good crowds turn up at Ryan Field to watch Northwestern crush Towson and Eastern Michigan. The team heads to Syracuse and thumps the Orange for the second straight year, as Corey Wootton sacks Greg Paulus four times. Northwestern then delivers more heartbreak to Minnesota, beating the Gophers in overtime on a Kafka touchdown run.

A trip to Purdue follows, and Northwestern improves to 5-0 as the run game capitalizes on a questionable Boilers front seven. The schedule spits out another patsy the next week, and the Wildcats start 6-0 by trouncing Miami (Ohio). For the second straight year, Northwestern heads to Michigan State undefeated and this time, the Wildcats don't doom themselves in the first quarter and pull out a 28-21 victory.

Entering the Top 25 for the first time, Northwestern avenges last year's inexcusable loss to Indiana by thrashing the Hoosiers. A tough closing stretch begins with Penn State on Halloween, and the Wildcats stumble for the first time. They recover to win two of their final three contests, including their third straight at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium, to finish at 10-2.

The Capital One Bowl predictably passes over Northwestern, but the Outback Bowl, which snubbed the team last year, selects the Wildcats to face Arkansas. Northwestern wins its first bowl since the 1949 Rose and winds up 11-2. Wootton earns All-America honors and wins the Ted Hendricks Award. After firing Charlie Weis, Notre Dame makes a run at Fitzgerald, who stiff-arms South Bend and says he'll coach NU for life. Northwestern finalizes a 2011 game at Wrigley Field and sees home attendance increase by 25 percent.


New personnel struggle on offense, the defense backslides, attendance continues to struggle and Fitzgerald considers leaving.

Once again, Northwestern takes a major step back on offense with a new quarterback, as Kafka never establishes himself as a passer and throws too many pick-sixes. The defense reverts to its 2007 form at times, as Wootton and several other contributors go down with injuries. The kicking game costs the Wildcats two wins.

After two unimpressive victories to open the season, Northwestern heads to Syracuse and performs much like it did at Duke last year, except with a worse result. An uninspired offense doesn't move the ball, and Paulus dissects a veteran defense. A week later, Minnesota avenges back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Northwestern, which misses four field goals and watches the Gophers' Troy Stoudermire return a kickoff for a touchdown in a 35-28 loss.

The Wildcats rebound against Purdue and Miami (Ohio), but they come out shaky against Michigan State for the second straight year and can't recover. After squeaking by Indiana, Northwestern drops its final four games, including a heartbreaker to Wisconsin at home, to miss the postseason despite a cushy schedule. Wootton reinjures his knee against Penn State, and three of the four secondary starters also go down.

Attendance struggles again at Ryan Field, as visiting fans regularly outnumber NU backers during Big Ten play. Notre Dame comes after Fitzgerald, and the coach takes a long time before deciding to stay in Evanston, making NU fans very uncertain about his future with the program.