Ohio State fans are not used to being worried about Northwestern. In my entire 26 years on earth, the Wildcats have only beaten Ohio State once, a 33-27 upset during the dark days of 2004. In fact, that's Northwestern's only victory since 1971, and virtually all of those losses have been beatdowns. The Wildcats may have been occasionally been feisty, or maybe even really good, but to Buckeye fans, it's been easy to relegate them as NERDwestern, our adorable, puny, nerdy cousin, the bifocal-clad Evanston private school that stubbornly insists they're Chicago's Big Ten Team. Good job, good effort, right?
Those days may be changing. After a strong recruiting class and a bowl victory over an SEC team, the Wildcats certainly aren't going to be surprising anybody this year, but the fundamentals are in place for Northwestern to more than a fun curiosity. They could be legitimate Big Ten threats and contenders for the foreseeable future.
The Wildcats can boast stability
One of the big reasons for the Big Ten's downward trend as of late has been massive coaching instability. All but four schools in the league now have replaced coaches in the last five years. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz is the dean of the group, but he'd be fired if his buyout wasn't the size of the national debt. That leaves Nebraska's Bo Pelini (hired in 2007), Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (2006) and Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern (2006).
It isn't a stretch to argue that Fitz is going to be there the longest. He's already proven he's a quality coach on the field, he's very young (he's only 38!!!), and as a famous graduate of the university, he has the connection to the university that is likely stronger than a flashier title on his LinkedIn account. Openings at Michigan and Notre Dame have popped up during his tenure and Fitzgerald never batted an eye, so it's tough to imagine the sort of job that could pry him away from Evanston. Maaaaaybe the Chicago Bears? Maybe. He's already banked more than enough goodwill at Northwestern to save him from an occasional 5 win season. It doesn't look like Fitzgerald is going anywhere soon, and that's great news for a program looking to make the next step.
The Wildcats are actually recruiting
We've heard all the excuses before, about how Northwestern was too small to compete with their massive Land-Grant fellow Big Ten brothers, or that their academic requirements were too strict. Thanks to some recent success and some good ol' recruitin' shoeleather, the Wildcats are starting to attract some serious athletes. Northwestern just picked up Auston Anderson, a 3/4 star running back out of Texas that was actually being pursued by Texas (and not as a Safety!). Anderson will fit right in with consensus 4-star Dareian Watkins, an athlete out of Ohio. Already, Northwestern is looking at a top-25 caliber class, and when it's all said and done, this may end up as their best class in program history.
Given Northwestern's history alone, that would be an impressive feat, but given the league-wide lull in recruiting (outside of Ohio State and Michigan), a great class or two might amplify their impact in league play. Northwestern has already found ways to be competitive without many elite caliber athletes. Once they actually have some, beating the rest of the league shouldn't be a surprise, it will be an expectation.
Northwestern actually has some institutional advantages
We (fans, and also media commentators) have been trained to look at the things that make Northwestern unique has negatives. I'm not sure that's actually the case. It's true that Northwestern's academic rigor would make it a poor fit for a certain kind of athlete, but that doesn't mean it's a poor fit for ALL athletes. Stanford and Vanderbilt have shown that you can recruit good athletes and build successfully football programs at elite private schools. Northwestern's appeal to more academically oriented students can transcend geography, allowing them to fight for smart kids all over the country. For a school without a storied football history, that's no small advantage.
While anybody who has been to Northwestern or has closely looked at a map knows that Evanston isn't Chicago, it is pretty damn close. Proximity to a world class city does allow the school to take advantage of some of those resources, like the school's recent agreement to play multiple games at Wrigley Field. As the Wildcats continue to leverage the city, their smaller size and their academics, they'll continue to find ways to bring in their kind of player, who isn't necessarily the stogy two-star of yesteryear.
Northwestern is hitting their stride at the right time
When you aren't Ohio State or Michigan, timing is just as big a part of your success as finding the right players. The Wildcats are poised to join a division where the presumed power program (Wisconsin) is breaking in a new coach, and Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota are either struggling or breaking in new coaches themselves. This gives the school a chance to grow a little fat on their middling neighbors, and put themselves in position to compete for Big Ten Division titles should a break or two go there way. Recent institutional investments, like this one, certainly don't hurt either.
Ohio State's night game at Northwestern this year should be one of the toughest of the season, given the Wildcat's returning talent (they project as a preseason top 25 team). If these developments continue though, fretting about Northwestern on the schedule may not be a historical aberration. It might end up being the new normal.