1. What is the on-campus culture at Northwestern like (with regards to football)? Is there a generally united fanbase? Are there factions of faculty who actively snipe at the program?
Having historically sucked, it isn't great. A tiny school with an awful team playing in a stadium six times larger than the undergrad population has led to some ugly days at Ryan Field.
But 100 percent of human beings who care about Northwestern sports are thrilled, confused, and just overwhelmingly pumped about the way things are going with football right now. NU's success hasn't been one-off or luck. It's wins leading to recruiting leading to more wins leading to better recruits leading to now, when we just won a 10-win game and turned in the school's best recruiting class of all time that topped the recent best recruiting classes of all time.
We see this, we see a school that, for the first time, has a full-time marketing/sales branch of the athletic department, that in turn is for the first time trying to actively sell non-Northwestern alumni on Northwestern sports, and the desire of people who are affiliated with Northwestern to affiliate themselves with Northwestern football is higher than it's ever been. Ever.
2. For a school that has not dealt with a lot a lot of expectation in football, how is the team/school dealing with the football team being ranked in the preseason?
MY ROOM USED TO HAVE FOUR WALLS. UNFORTUNATELY, SINCE NORTHWESTERN'S TEAM LAST YEAR WAS THE BEST TEAM IN A LONG-ASS TIME AND IT RETURNS MOST OF ITS IMPORTANT PLAYERS, I WAS SUPER-PUMPED ABOUT NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL. AND THEN THE SCHOOL RELEASED LIKE A DOZEN AWESOME HYPE VIDEOS ON YOUTUBE, AND NOW MY ROOM HAS ONE WALL AND THREE PILES OF RUBBLE WHERE I RAN THROUGH SHEER BRICK OUT OF PURE ENTHUSIASM.
LITERALLY 83 PERCENT OF THE BONES IN MY BODY ARE BROKEN. I HAVEN'T SLEPT SINCE APRIL 22ND. SEND HELP.
3. How indicative of team quality was Northwestern's performance last year?
On the one hand, double-digit wins is pretty great no matter how you get there, and really the Syracuse game and the Michigan State game were the only real squeakers, both on the road. On the other hand, you guys played a grand total of zero ranked teams, missing both 12-0 Ohio State and Rose Bowl representative Wisconsin in conference, and the losses all came against the three most talented teams on your schedule (Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State). It's hard to know what to make of it.
You can spin the stats to call Northwestern a team that got lucky to win ten games or call Northwestern a team that got jobbed by not going undefeated.
It's true: NU didn't play any ranked teams, needed a late drive featuring a controversial penalty call to eke out a one-point win against Syracuse, and cashed in on a series of poor decisions, unlucky turnovers, and a missed field goal to beat Michigan State by three points. Northwestern should've won, like, seven games last year, and barely bowled in a down conference.
It's also true that Northwestern led every game it played in with less than five minutes to go. Penn State had a massive rally that turned an 11-point deficit to an 11-point win. Michigan converted a Hail Mary with under 15 seconds on the clock to force overtime, and were only able to complete it because Northwestern's backup cornerback, forced into play due to injury, deflected the pass in such a way that Roy Roundtree was able to reach back and tap the ball back to himself, allowing the Wolverines to kick a field goal to send it to OT and win DAMMIT ROY ROUNDTREE YOU JERK I'M GONNA GET YOU ONE OF THESE DAYS. Nebraska scored two touchdowns in six minutes to go ahead by one point, and NU's game-winning field goal had the leg, but was about three feet too far to the right. And while looking at where teams were ranked at the time a game was played is easy, it's also a bit shortsighted: NU played three teams ranked in the final AP Poll.
So was NU on the cusp of greatness, or just lucky to have a bad schedule. That's for your local sports columnist to decide. I, on the other hand, will enjoy having watched NU's third 10-win team in history and second-ever bowl win, first since 1949. That seems more fun than debating something nobody can prove, right?
4. Following up on that thought, what are you expecting from the Wildcats this year?
Let's say Cal had the best season in recent memory and returned every skill position player besides their third-best wide receiver, and on defense lost two really bad secondary players, a good defensive tackle, and one of three solid linebackers. How hyperbolic would you get?
A lot of Northwestern fans are like that, times 52.
However, it's tough not to look at the facts: NU draws Ohio State and Wisconsin, the two toughest teams in the other division, which no other team in our division else does. And between Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska, there are contenders on our side. I don't think a Big Ten championship berth is likely just because the schedule stacks up against NU, but it's certainly possible given the talent of the returning players.
5. Apart from the fact that it's the season opener and we're all in football withdrawal, how excited are you about the Cal game? How appealing are Memorial Stadium and Berkeley as a road destination, and how weird is it to not necessarily be the more nerdy school on the field?
The fanbase likes the Cal game. Because NU has a nationally spread alumni base, there are a lot of West Coast folks excited about the game. And we like playing actual BCS opponents. NU played three last year (Syracuse, Vandy, BC) and became the first team -- so far as anybody can tell -- to beat three non-conference BCS opponents in the regular season.
As for playing a nerdy school, no, it's not weird: NU realizes it's not just competing against Big Ten schools for recruits, but also schools from across the country with high academic standards for athletes -- the Stanfords, Dukes, Vandy's -- and schedules them regularly.
Second of all: what is this BS about you being nerdier than us? We're playing Cal-Berkeley, not CatTech or Stanford, right?
Oh, and can somebody hand me a telescope? it's hard seeing all the way down to 21 on the US News and World Report rankings. Wait, can you guys even read this? If not, I'll have my butler, Wellingsley, read it for you. He makes wonderful pancakes. Oh, by the way, I dictate all my posts to my butler, Wellingsley. Lower-class illiterate troglodyte scum like you probably wouldn't understand. Ha-ha, sport, that sure was a good line of jokes, wasn't it Wellingsley? Wait, Wellingsley are you typing all this? When I'm talking to you, you don't need to type, you ne'er-do-well buffoon! (dear CGB readers: this is wellingsley pls send help)
I think you nailed it on the head. Kain Colter is QB 1A, a dynamic runner especially when paired with speedster preseason all-B1G running back Venric Mark on option/zone read-type plays. Siemian's got the better arm though, and takes a series here or there to mix things up while also running NU's two-minute drill. It's not a QB controversy, just two guys using their appropriate skillsets, and it's worked fine in past. The problem is NU sometimes telegraphs plays, especially in an ill-fated stint where Colter would play wide receiver -- not that he was bad at it, just that Siemian would lock in exclusively on Colter when he was running routes and the threat of a run wasn't even on the table.
7. How big an impact has Pat Fitzgerald been on your program, and what are your thoughts on the future?
Pat Fitzgerald IS the program. Simple as that. He's beloved by the fans, students, alumni, and the university itself, and he loves them all back. He's excitable and young, and recruits want to play for him. He's honest and loyal, and recruits' parents want their kids to play for him. Every year, things get better, and every year, it's clear that more and more of it has to do with Fitz's program.
Sure, despite decades of crap, other coaches have had success at Northwestern -- Gary Barnett won two Big Ten championships, in part because of some two-bit linebacker named Pat Fitzgerald -- but nobody has been able to sustain it, or build the program-wide momentum, in the way Fitz has. The school has made sure to lock him up for a long, long, time, and that's a great thing.
8. The offensive line was instrumental to Northwestern's success last season by allowing only 16 sacks and paving the way for 225 rushing yards per game. Having lost three starters, how has the line looked this offseason? Do you expect the line to continue playing at an elite level or is it going to take a step back?
Well, it's rough to lose three players at any position. But recruiting rankings and updates from camp indicate Northwestern has better offensive line depth now than at any point in the school's history, and with one of the best centers in the country in Brandon Vitabile and a left tackle who was more than serviceable at right tackle last year in Jack Konopka, there are two solid players, plus supposedly talented youngsters. NU needs the O-Line to allow them to operate their run-heavy gameplan, so if they're not up to snuff, we're in for some bad things.
9. What is your perception or expectation of Cal, a team that went just 3-9 last season, but has been recruiting well and underwent a complete coaching change, overhauling the offense and the defense?
I think you got a damn coach in Sonny Dykes. I think everybody gets excited when they fire a coach because they expect things to be different, while ignoring the fact different is sometimes bad. I think Cal is one of the cases where you have a legit reason to be excited.
I'm not sure how much of a showing you'll be able to muster in Week 1, with a newbie QB and everything changing, but let me go on the record saying I'm glad this series is for 2013 and 2014 rather than 2015 and 2016. We could still always lose one or both games, but we're catching you at the very beginning of the upswing, rather than close to the peak.
10. Whom do you want to punch in the face?
Why, Wellingsley, my rapscallion of a butler! Ha-ha, just playing good sport -- Write "Roy Roundtree" or something and let me return to my croquet bout against the Pendletons. And we're done!