Bowl berths are now expected for Northwestern, not celebrated. The seventh-year head coach can be credited for the culture change. However, he carries the burden of bringing the program its first postseason triumph since 1949.
Plenty has changed for Northwestern football since Fitzgerald first stepped onto campus as a freshman. The Wildcats are no longer the Big Ten's bottom-dweller, fan support continues to increase, and a plan for athletic facilities upgrades is in place. Still, one ghost from the past haunts Northwestern.
To Fitzgerald's credit, he remains collected and confident each time he's asked: is this the year? This time, his firmness is justified.
Not since 1949 has Northwestern had a team better equipped to end the 64-year drought. Under Fitzgerald, NU's level of talent has risen each season, with this year's squad being the program's best since 1995. The Wildcats are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before.
In overtime losses to Missouri and Auburn in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern battled with heart, matching top talent. Two inspired comeback attempts against Texas Tech and Texas A&M in proceeding bowl appearances continued to showcase the program's character—fighting until the final whistle to end its infamous skid. But the Cats were underdogs. They weren't supposed to win.
Fitzgerald painted a familiar picture before the Wildcats' bowl itinerary was set.
"We're going to play a great team," he joked after the Illinois game. "We're going to play on the road, we're going to play in Florida somewhere, we're going to play an SEC team in their backyard and we're going to be the underdog by 75 points. Nothing is new, bowl season for the 'Cats."
The joking from Fitzgerald felt a bit uncomfortable when a matchup with Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, or Texas A&M appeared realistic. Instead, late politicking by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany dropped Northwestern to a Gator Bowl matchup with Mississippi State, saving face for his conference's rough campaign.
Instead of being heavy underdogs, the Wildcats are favorites. And they should get that elusive win.
Northwestern is the superior team in this bowl—something that has never been the case under Fitzgerald, Randy Walker, or even Gary Barnett. The Wildcats' spread offense is well prepared after weeks of preparation, while the defense is ready for the Bulldogs' attack.
Monday afternoon brings the Gator Bowl press conference in Jacksonville, in which Fitzgerald will meet the media for the final time before his Wildcats take the field. Surely, the coach will be ready for the obligatory question—one he has answered many times before. He'll smile and politely explain why Northwestern will win. You can't blame him for feeling confident.