A near perfect season in 2020 (7-2, 6-1 Big Ten), a Big Ten West title, and a Citrus Bowl victory weren't enough for the Wildcats to enter 2021 with national recognition. Though they finished 2020 at No. 10 in the AP Top 25 and No. 14 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, the Wildcats have fallen off the charts in this year's preseason polls — receiving only 8 votes in the AP Top 25 Poll and 120 votes in the Coaches Poll.
The Wildcats have history of entering the season unranked only to climb the ranks and finish the year in the Top 25. The Wildcats entered the 2020 season with only a single vote in the AP poll. In 2018, the Wildcats cinched 13 votes in the AP poll, and finished at No. 21. In 2017, 25 votes led to a No. 17 finish.
"It's something that I've been used to since I've been here," All-American safety Brandon Joseph said. "We've been preseason ranked either last or in the bottom half since I've been here. We work our way up. We just finished as the No. 10 team last year, and now we're unranked. It's not new to us ... We don't listen to all that crap."
According to Joseph, the Wildcats are accustomed to hunting rather than being hunted. In the documentary Good Clean American Fun: 2020 Northwestern Football, ESPN anchor Rece Davis asked former NFL player and ESPN analyst Joey Galloway what he thought about Northwestern making a potential playoff run. Galloway's response was a comparison of watching the Wildcats to watching "a bunch of Rece Davises out there running around."
Former Wildcat linebacker Paddy Fisher, who captained the 2020 squad reacted to the nationally-broadcasted comment.
"At the end of the day, people talk," Fisher said. "I believe in myself and I believe in my teammates. I just don’t give a s—. I don't care. We might never get the respect here and we'll keep working. Keep the pedal down."
The question is: Do the Wildcats want respect? Or, does the lack of national attention fuel the team and keep it grounded?
"We do want respect," Joseph said. "We're a powerhouse program in our opinion. We've been to the Big Ten championship the last three years."
"A goal is to get that attention," he continued. "To be considered a powerhouse like Michigan State and Michigan. As one of the better teams in the Big Ten, we're tired of being slept on. At the same time, it's given us this underdog mentality. So, I hope we make it to the Big Ten championship this year and win."
The Wildcats return only 34% of their total production from 2020, according to ESPN's Bill Connelly, which ranks second-to-last out of 127 FBS teams.
"Respect is earned," graduate linebacker Chris Bergin said. "Having the least amount of returning production in college football, we haven't earned respect. It's as simple as that. Last year's team — we earned it. This year's team — we're going to earn it."
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In 2021, the Wildcats have a unique opportunity to flip the polls and equations completely on their heads. It will take plenty of work for the young squad to grow into the powerhouse program it was in 2020. However, the 'Cats have a plan in place.
Joseph explained that the underdog mentality helps the Wildcats focus on attacking each game individually, rather than getting lost in the larger scope of subjective rankings.
"The mindset needs to be, 'we're preparing for each group that has great players,'" Joseph explained. "We just focus on our task right now. Our task is Michigan State. It's literally going 'Week 1, then Week 2.' Focusing on that game and being able to make sure we really keep our focus on that team and not looking at the bigger picture."
Bergin summed up his response to the team's small dose of early respect in the national landscape quite simply:
"Am I surprised? No. Do I think we should have it? No. Do I think we're going to earn it? Yes."
As Northwestern continues to etch its name as a prominent program into the cement of college football, the Wildcats will shift their mindset from hunting to being hunted.
"We want respect. We want to be considered one of the top programs. But at the same time, once we get up there, we have to have the mindset of staying up there."
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