Northwestern won 10 games for the first time since its Big Ten championship season of 1995, beat Mississippi State in January's Gator Bowl for its first postseason victory in five decades and got people thinking about the school's first conference championship in 13 seasons.
For a program known more its NCAA Division I record 34 consecutive losses from 1979 to 1982 and no bowl wins since 1949 (a string of nine games that also tied a NCAA record), preseason optimism was certainly a shift in dynamic for a tortured fan base … but not for its players.
"If one thing has changed in our program it's confidence (but) at the same time, we're not satisfied at all," said senior quarterback Kain Colter. "We're hungrier than ever. We know that we can compete with anybody."
Despite the best mark in seven seasons under Pat Fitzgerald, players couldn't help but wonder how much better the season could have been had the Wildcats not blown a fourth-quarter lead in each of their three losses. Finishing in the fourth quarter was the focal point all offseason; even going so far to have "5:03" stamped on the back of their gray workout shirts to signify the amount of time standing between Northwestern and an undefeated season.
It's not a surprise then that Fitzgerald said there were a lot of frustrated people walking around the Wildcats football offices early this week after Northwestern blew a fourth-quarter lead in a loss to No.4 Ohio State; a game built as one of the biggest home matchups in recent program history.
"We've got a very good football team," said Fitzgerald. "We've got a group of young men that have won a lot of games, have been in a lot of battles. There was about as much hype around that game last week as you're going to be a part of outside of getting into the BCS bowls. I thought they handled it very well. I thought they showed they could play with anybody in the country. Now we have to finish the job."
While the Wildcats (4-1, 0-1 Big Ten) have been hot or cold on defense, allowing three opponents over 27 points so far this season, the offense has kept Northwestern in the conversation to represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten.
Northwestern enters Saturday's game at Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1) having scored at least 30 points in seven straight games going back to last season, the longest such streak in school history and tied for the second-longest active streak in the nation.
Averaging 39.0 points per game, 255.6 passing yards and 218.4 rushing yards per game, the Wildcats use a variety of weapons in each area, but use Colter in every aspect of the offense.
Originally committed to Stanford first before committing to Fitzgerald's Northwestern, Colter secretly wanted to play quarterback, the position he wanted to find his niche at coming out of high school, and Stanford didn't guarantee him that opportunity.
One of only five true freshmen to play for Northwestern four seasons ago, Fitzgerald said Colter would do anything on the field to contribute at any position. Problem was that Colter was such a good athlete that it almost was to his disadvantage.
"Not a lot of people know this but when I started playing quarterback, I was a scout team guy when I was redshirting," said Colter. "They really don't care about the redshirts. I went out as a receiver to help them out and was actually beating the first-team defensive backs. That translated into the coaches feeling they should put me out at receiver."
He played in three games in 2010, including rushing eight times for 28 yards against Wisconsin, but showed off his versatility in the TicketCity Bowl against Texas Tech. He posted the seventh 100-yard rushing performance by a quarterback in Northwestern history (105 yards on 18 carries), rushed for two touchdowns, threw for 38 yards on 3-of-6 passing and hauled in a 32-yard reception against the Red Raiders.
From that point forward, Colter became one of the team's premier weapons. He passed and rushed for over 600 yards as a sophomore while having a career-best 466 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Last season he threw for 872 yards, rushed for 894 yards and had 20 touchdowns responsible for in Northwestern's comeback-to-relevance season.
Colter enters Saturday with 3,889 career total offense yards, good for 14th in school history.
"The option became such a big part of our team that I really tried to do that," said Colter. "It takes a whole offense. We have unselfish receivers who are willing to block, an offensive line that is mobile and we all study and try to master our craft. Everyone has to really know what the defense is trying to do, how they are going to try and take it away and what we're trying to do to counter that. It takes a lot of mental preparation."
It takes a measure of unselfishness, too. Part of Northwestern's success stems from an actual two-quarterback system with Colter and junior Trevor Siemian, so unique that they are one of the few programs in the country to use it successfully.
Against Ohio State, Siemian threw for 245 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on 13-of-18 passing while Colter was a perfect 12-of-12 for 98 yards, rushed for a touchdown and caught a touchdown. Not only do both do different things when running the offense, both can be on the field at the same time, making its scheme hard to defense.
"The key thing is that both kids believe in it," said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "That's what matters the most. It's not that the coaches are doing something magical. It's the fact that those two kids work well together, they respect each other and they make the offense work."
Spending the summer trying to perfect his vertical passing game and find rhythm with his receiving corps, Colter appreciates the recognition from some outside sources, especially since the program went 13-13 his first two seasons, but knows that a team full of veterans, it's time to push the program to a higher level.
"I've been working as hard as I can, probably the hardest I ever have," said Colter. "This is my last go around. You never know if you are going to get a chance at the next level. This could be my last time playing football ever again, so you have to make it count. You don't want to have any regrets."