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January 2, 2013

The bowl streak over, what comes next for NU?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.-Now that the stuffed monkey representing 64 years of bowl futility was torn apart in the EverBank Field locker room and his head displayed at the post-game press conference for all to see, it is time to look ahead to what comes next for Northwestern.

The Wildcats erased the last remaining negative stigma associated with the program with a 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl on New Year's Day. It snapped a nine-game bowl losing streak that stretched back to the 1949 Rose Bowl.

The team that had been closing countless practice huddles with the chant "bowl win" over the last several years had finally achieved its objective.

Now that the agonizing bowl hurdle has been cleared, what will be the next mission for a program that just about everyone in the national media agrees is on the rise?

The answer is simple: winning a Big Ten championship.

An elated and content head coach Pat Fitzgerald said as much in his post-game comments. He and his squad will celebrate this monumental win, but it's just another rung on a ladder that Fitzgerald believes is climbing ever higher.

"Obviously, it says on our goal board…and all of those that come up every day at every press conference, it's no secret that our goal is to be champions, and this is the first step in accomplishing that mission," he said, flanked by quarterback Trevor Siemian and linebacker David Nwabuisi. "Chicago's Big Ten team is going to come back as Chicago's Big Ten champions. And season tickets went on sale today. So we're already in 2013, so let's get to work."

In seven years, Fitzgerald has gotten the Wildcat program to an unprecedented level of consistency.

This was Northwestern's fifth consecutive bowl appearance, and postseason games have become as commonplace as outstanding Academic Progress Report rankings in Evanston. He has gotten Northwestern's administration's to support a $220 million athletics and recreation facilities overhaul which has already raised $55 million in a few short months. Ticket sales are up, and NU's marketing efforts have given the program the highest profile it has ever had in Chicago.

What Fitzgerald has yet to prove he can do, however, is to contend for, let alone win, a conference championship.

Next year could be the year for the Wildcats to do just that.

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding 2012 season, the Wildcats exceeded just about every expert's predictions and won 10 games for just the third time in program history and the first time since Fitzgerald's own 1995 Rose Bowl squad. The Wildcats were also within three fourth-quarter collapses of going undefeated in what was an admittedly watered down league.

Going into 2013, Fitzgerald's cupboard looks to be as full as it ever has been.

On offense, seven of the 11 starters will be back. Tackle Patrick Ward, guards Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters, and wide receiver Demetrius Fields are the only Wildcat starters who will not return. Siemian, Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Dan Vitale and all the other skill position will.

A receiving corps as deep as Patrick Ryan's pockets should absorb the loss of Fields, meaning that a retooled offensive line will be the biggest concern. The Wildcats have recruited big guys well in recent years and boast talent and depth at both tackle and guard. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether those players can turn potential into production.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, six of the top eight rotation players on the defensive line will come back -- all but Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt. Captain and defensive leader David Nwabuisi is the only linebacker who has exhausted his eligibility, while Gator Bowl MVP Jared Carpenter -- who wondered himself exactly how he won that award -- is the lone starting defensive back who will not be back in 2013.

On special teams, placekicker Jeff Budzien, who kicked two field goals in the Gator Bowl to raise his accuracy to a rub-your-eyes 19-of-20 on the year, punter Brandon Williams and Mark, a touchdown waiting to happen in the return game, will again wear purple.

In all 14 of 22 starters will be back in 2013 -- 17 of 25 if you include special teams -- as well as a host of key role players.

The enthusiasm of all that returning talent is tempered a bit by a Big Ten schedule that gets a bit rougher. Gone are Indiana, which has become an automatic W in recent seasons, and Penn State, which should be on a downward trend after a brilliant 2012.

Replacing them are Ohio State, 12-0 but bowl ineligible this year, and Wisconsin, which played in the Rose Bowl yesterday as Big Ten champions for the third straight time.

And, as luck would have it, NU will open the Big Ten season against those two power programs. The Wildcats take on the Buckeyes in Evanston on Oct. 5 and the Badgers in Madison on Oct. 12.

While Northwestern was able to sneak up on some teams this season, that probably won't be the case next year. They will likely be a preseason Top 15 program in 2013 and a sexy pick as a darkhorse candidate in a Big Ten conference looking for an upbeat story.

Fitzgerald welcomes the challenge. He thinks that this may be the best place the NU program has ever been, and that includes the back-to-back Big Ten title teams of 1995-96.

Basking in the glow of a win 64 years in the making, Fitzgerald gushed about where the program is headed.

"We've got the best athletic director in in the country in Jim Phillips and best president, Morton Schapiro," he said. "The sky is the limit for where our program can go. We've gotten off to an unbelievable start with our fundraising campaign, and we'll be way ahead of schedule in improving our facilities to where they are currently to the best in the country, in a setting that is unmatched and unparalleled in college football.

"To have that kind of support is just unbelievable and where the future may go for us. So that's exciting."

Now it's time to turn those words into wins.



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