Sure, there are some what-ifs for Northwestern after a season like this.
What if the Wildcats had intercepted Taylor Martinez in the fourth quarter Oct. 20? What if they had tackled Roy Roundtree before the ball arrived Nov. 12? What if they had protected leads a little bit better?
Had one or two plays went differently, Northwestern would be packing its bags for Indianapolis and the Big Ten title game. Those near misses are frustrating, but the 2012 Wildcats team should be appreciated as one of the Big Ten's best. It certainly looks like Pat Fitzgerald's best product in his six seasons as head coach.
And if Northwestern can get the bowl monkey off of its back in the coming weeks, the season will be branded as a major success, period.
Northwestern made easy work of Illinois in a 50-14 romp at Ryan Field to finish 9-3. A Florida bowl invitation -- Outback or Gator the probable choices -- likely awaits the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten), who are searching for their first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
After a shaky start on defense, Northwestern dominated the Illini with a dynamic run game and capitalized on Illinois' many mistakes. The game basically was over as soon as Northwestern announced its star backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark would be available to play.
Colter and Mark knifed through Illinois' defensive front, which hasn't been the biggest weakness for the Illini this season but certainly was Saturday. The tandem combined for 215 rush yards and two touchdowns, and Colter added three touchdown passes on only 11 attempts, including a well-designed pass across the field to Tyris Jones in the third quarter. Six different Wildcats players reached the end zone, including Paul Jorgensen, a converted tackle who Illinois didn't bother to acknowledge on a 24-yard scoring reception midway through the third.
Northwestern diversified its run game, using Tim Riley as a power back and getting Jones and Mike Trumpy involved as well. The Wildcats racked up 338 rush yards and even put punt protector Bo Cisek in at tailback in the fourth quarter (he fumbled).
Had wideout Christian Jones tiptoed into the end zone, Northwestern would have had three different Joneses -- Tyris, Tony and Christian -- score touchdowns.
Illinois' much-maligned offense actually showed some fire early, as running back Donovonn Young ripped through some shoddy Northwestern tackles. The Illini (2-10, 0-8) scored two touchdowns in the first 20 minutes, but then they started making mistakes. Eight first-half penalties combined with four turnovers doomed the Illini, who went winless in Big Ten play for the fourth time since 1997.
Coach Tim Beckman's first season was an utter disaster, but it still would be surprising if he isn't back in 2013. There likely will be staff changes -- I've heard at least two assistants are done -- but Illinois can't dump Beckman after one year and expect to hire anyone decent.
Illinois had won the teams' past two meetings and rubbed it in last year, playing "Sweet Home Chicago" when it was over. But Northwestern has been the better program for the past decade and showed why Saturday.
It's been a disappointing season around most of the Big Ten, but Northwestern can feel good about itself with a solid 9-3 record that easily could have been better. The Wildcats entered the year with a young team not projected to do much. Now they're likely headed for a Jan. 1 Florida bowl against an SEC team. And almost everyone returns for 2013.
The future is bright in Evanston.