Meanwhile, Northwestern heads in the opposite direction. The sports information directors list "Big Ten Championship" (Dec. 7, 2013) beneath this year's schedule. One year after NU embarrassed Illinois in the 50-14 rout–and purposefully so–the programs hold wildly different expectations.
In the past five seasons, Illinois is 24-38. NU is 40-25. The divide in results hardly seems close.
But don't worry. They see the silver lining, as evidenced by this unironic gem of a tweet. The first skeptical comment reads: "Who effing cares if we don't win games?" And everyone can agree. It's the absolute opposite of the situation in Evanston, where professional success takes the ultimate backburner.
The NFL Draft–naturally centered on individual talent–does nothing to capture just how good the Wildcats are. They almost frequently lack significant professional talent, but can be counted on to win games. It's become the staple of the Pat Fitzgerald era—and it simply defies all odds.
No one the current roster seems close to being a future first-round talent. Venric Mark is the fragile version of Darren Sproles, though that's not to discount his talent. Ibraheim Campbell looks like a potential day-two talent to my untrained eyes, but when I asked Pat Fitzgerald about his chances, the head coach shot me down.
The Gator Bowl win provides the perfect miniature of how NU football succeeds. Up against an excellent secondary with two future second-round picks (Johnthan Banks, Darius Slay), the Cats poked holes in the opponent's major weakness. The pass rush led by Arnfelt and Quentin Williams frustrated quarterback Tyler Russell throughout the game. The offense highlighted superback Dan Vitale, who hauled in seven receptions for 82 yards on that cathartic afternoon in Jacksonville.
You often hear these two words: "Player development." Recent commit Ben Oxley praised Fitzgerald for his ability in that department, which forced me to evaluate what exactly he meant.
Perhaps the NU blog Sippin' on Purple captured that with excellent analysis of the 2010 recruiting class. Just about everyone from that class has contributed to the team's success.
Fitzgerald and the entire staff refuses to "waste" scholarships. They carefully complete the evaluation process, and for whatever reasons, fill the roster with a makeup to compete for Big Ten titles.
You could call the team a group of "overachievers." Or, even more simply, you could say that the players love football. Think that's a given? I dare you to find a team more motivated. Nowhere but Evanston does a team wear workout shirts labeled with the minutes and seconds that separated them from an undefeated season.
Nowhere else can you find a 10-win major-conference team that had no players drafted. (It may have happened before, but I just don't believe it.)
Days like Thursday, Friday and Saturday–when no NU players are called–never seem like disappointments.
We'll take the real victories instead.