By Ben Glickman, '11
Before last season, rooting for Northwestern football was like rooting for Wile E. Coyote, except instead of chasing the Road Runner, the Wildcats were seeking a bowl win. The program entered last fall 63 years removed from its only postseason victory, a 20--14 win over Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl. As an alum my patience has been tested. It's not that the Cats weren't close—it's that they were too close, and the cycle of tempering expectations, raising hopes and watching everything unravel became exasperating.
Northwestern has routinely found new and creative ways to lose: In the 2008 Alamo Bowl, missed kicks resulted in a 30--23 overtime loss to Missouri. In the next year's Outback Bowl, more kicking blunders and an overtime injury to kicker Stefan Demos produced a 38--35 loss to Auburn. But here's the thing: All of those heartbreaking losses, while frustrating, showed the program was making strides. Northwestern has had winning records in four of the last five seasons. (It had four winning seasons from 1972 through 2007.) For a fan base accustomed to mediocrity, that's a strange thing to get used to.
August 19, 2013
Then last January it happened. Northwestern beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Entering 2013, the stakes have changed. Northwestern is supposed to be good. The Wildcats could still run off a cliff or get crushed by an anvil (e.g., Ohio State). But the Wile E. Coyote mind-set is disappearing. The program feels as if it can compete. I don't think it'll take 64 years to take the next step—a national title.
By Sarah Kwak, '07
When I was at Duke, fall could've been called tailgate season rather than football season, since the student parking lot was more entertaining—and often more populated—than the exercise in futility over at Wallace Wade Stadium. From 2003 through '06 the team went 7--39, culminating in (actually devolving to) a 0--12 season my senior year. So pardon me if I haven't paid much attention to Duke football in the years since.
Until last October, when I saw, incredibly, that the Blue Devils had started 5--1. There we were, one win away from bowl eligibility. I scanned the schedule, zeroing in on Oct. 20, when we'd host North Carolina. The rest of the games looked like certain losses. (They were.) But this one we could win. And we did, eking out a 33--30 victory to ensure a .500 season for the first time in 18 years. In some ways it was as satisfying as any win over UNC at Cameron Indoor.
So what if the Belk Bowl belonged to that infomercial tier of bowls, Duke was playing Cincinnati. On national television. In prime time. To my utter shock, with less than two minutes left and the score tied, the Blue Devils faced second-and-goal on the Bearcats' five-yard line. We're going to win, I said to myself.
But before the thought could turn into actual excitement, the old Duke returned. Running back Josh Snead fumbled, and the Bearcats went on to score not one but two touchdowns in 80 seconds. Of course.
Duke is still by no means a football school. But for about 58 minutes last December we were, and I have to say, I kind of liked it.
By Lee Jenkins, '99
I enrolled at Vanderbilt in 1995, and on the second play of the first game 5'7" tailback Jermaine Johnson pinballed 75 yards through the Alabama defense. Nearly 20 years later I have watched Vanderbilt at a Champps or a Buffalo Wild Wings in virtually every American metropolis. I've left weddings when I was a groomsman. I've postponed assignments on deadline. I once got temporarily ejected from Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium for flipping the press-box TV to Vanderbilt-Florida. In San Francisco, a city lacking sports bars, I persuaded The Condor to open at 9 a.m. for Vanderbilt--South Carolina. The Condor, it turned out, was a strip joint. A weary dancer and I watched alone. Vanderbilt lost that game, and most others. My wife stopped making Saturday-night plans. Grieving takes time.
Vanderbilt was to the SEC what Florida State would have been to the Ivy League, only the opposite, by far the smallest school with the smallest stadium and steepest academic requirements. But it's hard to take solace in APR rankings when you go 30 years without a winning regular season. I never laughed at the Weed-Eater Bowl. I fantasized about it (and almost got there in '05!).
Now, thanks to a visionary coach—who I won't name for fear that someone will throw $50 million at him—I've spent the past two New Year's Eves at bowls. Last season Vanderbilt won nine games for the first time since 1915, and over my computer hangs the final AP poll, which has an unfamiliar name at 23rd. That's AP, not APR.