By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) I can remember Sept. 2, 1995, like …
Well, not like it was yesterday, but I can certainly remember it.
That afternoon, I was sitting with a pack of buddies in the Block I student section at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, having just started my sophomore year at the University of Illinois.
And as we watched Michigan torch our Illini 38-14 in the season opener, the stadium’s PA announcer clicked on his microphone to announce to the crowd a different game’s shocking final score.
Northwestern 17, Notre Dame 15.
At that moment, everyone inside Memorial Stadium couldn’t have been more stunned if we’d just been told that alien ships were doing loop-de-loops above the Sears Tower. Or if the Cubs had won the World Series.
Seventeen years later, it’s truly impossible to fully quantify just how incredulous that score was to college football fans in 1995. After all, this was a Northwestern football program that had won only 37 games – in the previous 20 years. And this was a Notre Dame team that was a mere two seasons removed from being a late-season Boston College upset away from playing for the 1993 national title.
In the five seasons prior to 1995, Northwestern won a total of only 13 games and hadn’t tallied more than four victories since 1971 (when it won seven). But during that magical Rose Bowl run of Gary Barnett, Darnell Autry and Pat Fitzgerald (as a player, not a coach), the Wildcats went on to win 10 games in ‘95.
They haven’t won 10 again since. In fact, in its entire history, Northwestern has only won 10 games one other time – and that was in 1903. However, the Wildcats could win 10 games this season.
Or, perhaps, even more.
With three regular-season contests remaining, NU is currently sitting pretty at 7-2 overall as it enters its bye week this weekend. And as the Chicago Tribune reported this week, Northwestern is already at a very comfy position in the Big Ten Bowl pecking order with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible.
That comfy spot, though, could become a lofty one. At 3-2 in the Big Ten, the Wildcats also sit only a half-game behind Legends leaders Nebraska (3-1) and Michigan (3-1), meaning that Northwestern could still reach the Big Ten Championship (for a potential 11th win) and even the Rose Bowl (for a 12th).
So, is it really possible that Northwestern posts not only its best win total since 1995 this year, but even its better by one or two victories?
Well, it’s certainly not impossible. Not in this down year for the Big Ten.
The rest of Northwestern’s schedule plays out like this: a trip to Michigan (currently 5-3) a week from Saturday, followed by a road game at Michigan State (5-3), before ending the regular season at home against struggling Illinois (2-6).
If the Wildcats were to pull off victories in those three games, they’d still need Nebraska to lose twice in its final four – at Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota at home, and at Iowa – to reach the Big Ten championship game since the Huskers own the head-to-head tiebreaker vs. Northwestern. That’s not impossible.
If Northwestern could get to Indy, they’d likely face Wisconsin (5-3) in the title game since neither OSU nor PSU – currently 1-2 in the Leaders Division – are eligible to play in it. The Badgers, like most of the rest of the league, aren’t as strong as they recently have been.
Earlier this week, the Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein wrote about the Wildcats, “it would take a wild ride to get to Indy,” which would require a feat of matching the school-record for victories with 10.
It would, of course, take an even wilder ride for NU to win 11 or 12 games. But, hey, if it happens, I can say this:
Nothing about Northwestern could possibly shock me more than what happened on that day back in 1995.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.