Time to slow our NU football optimism

Steven Goldstein offers up the first edition of his weekly football column.

It's been a historic year for Northwestern football. In the past 10 months alone, the Wildcats notched a 10-win season, scrapped a six-decade bowl losing streak and have now begun anchoring what may be the best recruiting class the program has ever seen.

Attention is funneling in from major media outlets. Fan support continues to skyrocket. Fourteen starters return in 2013. There's no denying that the Cats are heading in the right direction.

Just don't get too far ahead of yourself.

Call it bad timing, call it preseason speculation, but Northwestern faces perhaps the toughest schedule in the Big Ten this fall, putting at least a slight damper on those lofty expectations. Right as realignment places them in the Western division, the Cats are slated to face every perennial powerhouse the conference has to offer, including aspiring national title team Ohio State.

Northwestern could chew out an 8-5 record just as easily as 10-3 or even 11-2.

An Opening Day tilt with Cal is far from an easy win. The Big Ten went 0-3 in road games against the Pac-12 last year, and despite coming off a 3-9 record, new head coach Sonny Dykes makes the Golden Bears a formidable threat.

Dykes is the son of legendary Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes and is a student of the air raid offense, leading a dynamic attack with Rob Gronkowski in Arizona. If there's one thing that Northwestern has fallen short with over the past few seasons, it's defending the deep ball.

Week two's matchup with Syracuse isn't guaranteed either. The Wildcats were a pass interference call and a Trevor Siemian strike away from losing to the Orange in last year's opener, and despite the loss of Ryan Nassib and head coach Doug Marrone, Syracuse is still a respectable team.

Two consecutive games against new head coaches? It doesn't necessarily make for easy wins. With new systems in place and no tape to review from last year, Cal and Syracuse may be able to catch the Cats by surprise.

Murmurs of an expected NU victory over Wisconsin this year are certainly fair, but Camp Randall is among the toughest road sites in the country. Northwestern hasn't won in Wisconsin in 13 years, and though Montee Ball leaves the Badger backfield, he's succeeded by James White, a senior who enters 2013 with the second-most rushing yards of any active running back. He and third-stringer Melvin Gordon combed for over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, forming a ground duo that could give the Wildcats fits.

Back-to-back games with Nebraska and Michigan could easily mean two losses as it could mean two wins. Michigan State returns nine starters to a top-10 statistical defense, and after enduring a world of injuries to their offensive line, the Spartans show potential to bounce back this fall.

That's not to say Northwestern can't beat all of these teams, including Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes. What it means, however, is that expectations need to be tempered.

It's so easy to get carried away in everything going on. After spending years as perennial underdogs, the Wildcats are finally garnering some much-deserved respect.

Northwestern's tough schedule doesn't halt any of that; regardless of how many wins the team gets; the hyped recruiting class of 2014 comes in a few months later. Momentum will continue to roll, and the talent and confidence the Cats have exuded thus far point toward a special ‘13 season.

But after a year in which things have gone so much better than expected, it's fair to prepare for something to break the wrong way. In a milieu where 10-win seasons suddenly feel like the norm, something slightly below that is still progress.


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