The Gator Bowl marks the final chapter of one story, but the beginning of a new narrative. Northwestern's most successful senior class will finish its highly accomplished run, leaving a new standard for the program to strive for.
"We're knocking on the door to be champions," said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Our first chance to be champions is this [Gator Bowl]. That's a huge catalyst for that confidence, to take that next step as a program."
The Wildcats have set the goal of sending their senior class out with an elusive bowl victory—not accomplished by any Northwestern team since 1949. After NU returns to snowy Evanston, the offseason begins.
The bar has been raised higher than ever before, and Northwestern's youngest Wildcats are eager to begin their task.
"It's definitely a challenge," freshman superback Dan Vitale said. "But we wouldn't have come here if we weren't looking for a challenge in the first place. Those seniors really set the pedestal for us. We want to stay on top of it."
Northwestern's ultimate goal was presented when NU's current freshmen first met with Pat Fitzgerald.
"Coach Fitz says to win championships," said freshman defensive end Dean Lowry. "And we bought into that."
If not for missed opportunities leading to three heartbreaking losses, Northwestern's season may have included such championship aspirations. Instead, that window was closed too soon. Following the Gator Bowl's final whistle, the Wildcats will return to snowy Evanston and begin work on a critical offseason.
The goal for Northwestern is to improve on a successful season that could have been more.
"You can only go up," Vitale said. "We'd love to go undefeated. That's every team's dream. We're definitely going to shoot for that goal next year."
Northwestern can boast stability for its bright future. The same coaching staff is expected to return for its third straight season together. Most importantly, its head coach is locked into a long-term deal, and hasn't shown a sign of leaving his alma mater—even after being offered a higher salary. Fitzgerald's reasoning is simple: he wants to win a championship.
"We're not looking for just this year; this is a long-term approach," Fitzgerald said. "In college football now, that's becoming increasingly more difficult. You see so many coaches that, a few more dollars are thrown at them, and all of a sudden, they jump ship. That's not what we're doing here."
With Fitzgerald's steady hand has come recruiting success in addition to on-field results. Northwestern's recruiting classes have improved each year since 2010, and such a trend will continue with its next group.
"We'll finish up a recruiting class that we feel very strongly about on paper, then we'll keep the steps going," said Fitzgerald. "I feel very strongly about where the program is at."
Higher expectations are prevalent for Northwestern, stemming from the seniors' success. Now, Wildcats of the present and future must strive to keep raising the bar.
"It's the foundation for the future," Lowry said. "We've got to keep building on what they've established. We'll just take it one day at a time to improve."