Internal hype, external skepticism

Northwestern football still faces the fight for national media respect.

I looked at the recent Cleveland Plain Dealer preseason media poll and simply laughed.

Perhaps this was the product of excessive message board reading or Pat Fitzgerald tape playbacks. Or maybe I'm overestimating the skill of Le'Veon Bell, who ran for almost 1,800 yards last season and then bolted to the NFL.

But that media preseason poll–including 26 human writers–ranked Michigan State ahead of Northwestern.

I'm not an NU homer. I still claim that they lacked signature wins in 2012 and question whether they can replace three offensive line starters and confuse defenses that now know something of what to expect.

It's also criminal that some writers are refusing to give NU credit. The Wildcats return nearly every skill position player from last year's 10-win season. They also won at East Lansing and finished a not-so-insignificant three games better than the Spartans in 2012. (It could have been four had MSU not squeaked out the train wreck 17-16 BWW Bowl win against TCU. They managed 227 total yards in that one.)

Right, I get it. MSU lost five conference games by a combined 13 points and also returns some talent. That's not really the point.

All offseason, optimism surrounding NU football has reached what seems like an all-time climax. I'm probably buying it. Longtime readers criticize me for my youthful naivety, but really, find an NU fan who doesn't believe this team can win 10 more games and at least compete in the conference championship race.

PW staff writer Steven Goldstein wrote something last month about how Northwestern's brutal schedule could dispel any hopes of another 10- or even 11-win season. He was criticized for his opinion on our message boards under the thread: "Slow our optimism? Not buying." That's standard fare on the boards, which tend to include yelling, but the comments often encapsulate the emotions of NU fans.

They complained after Syracuse. They then complained when I picked Vanderbilt and Zac Stacy to run all over NU the following week. (I regret saying nice things about Vandy more than anything.) This offseason, though, just about everyone agreed that NU football could turn the corner in 2013. I agree that they have the pieces, more than any media poll indicates. They are for real. It needs no explanation, and that's independent of any schedule. The history and the current roster will compete.

The internal enthusiasm will never match the external skepticism. Despite an inevitable top-25 preseason ranking, NU won't earn the deserved respect unless they stare down Ohio State at home. If that falls through, national writers will probably twiddle their thumbs until the Cats beat Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

"Are they legit contenders?" Everyone will ask that, regardless of whether they watch the games.

That's why fans love the "underdog" status. NU beat writers will barge into Big Ten media days considered by everyone as media coverage of the seventh or eighth best team in the conference. Fitzgerald will say nothing interesting (it's his job). The players figure to act subdued and appropriate. Behind closed doors, they all must laugh at ridiculous polls that ignore their team's serious relevance.

The cycle begins again at Big Ten Media Days. The season informally begins, and with it comes the hype. It's the constant fight for national attention. No major-conference championship contender will be more disrespected, and here, that's more than all right.

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