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For Northwestern football, expectations continue to rise

Northwestern quarterback KaColter (2) celebrates with teammates after scoring touchdown during first half an NCAA college football game against IowEvanstIll.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (2) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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vs. Mississippi St.

The facts: 11 a.m. Tuesday in Jacksonville, Fla., ESPN2.

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Updated: December 31, 2012 7:26PM

If you pay attention to Northwestern football long enough, you will hear somebody say, ‘‘That’s a nice season for Northwestern,’’ as though the Wildcats should be measured on a different scale than their Big Ten rivals.

The small, private, academically elite school is unique in the Big Ten, to be sure. But does there come a point when the definition of football success in Evanston extends beyond being bowl-eligible or snapping NU’s decades-long victory drought in bowl games?

As coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team prepares for its Gator Bowl matchup Tuesday against Mississippi State, the question becomes: Just how good can NU be? Stanford has stringent academic standards and has proved it can compete for national championships. What about the Wildcats?

‘‘I’ve always believed that you could,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘I’ve been sitting in the players’ lounge [ranked] No. 3 in the country and going to the Rose Bowl, with our only loss to Miami of Ohio [in 1995]. We have three games this year where, if we finish the job, we’re undefeated and going to the Big Ten championship game.’’

A few years ago, it was seemingly a foregone conclusion that football programs with high academic standards couldn’t attract enough elite athletes to compete for national championships.

Then Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford into a national power. Vanderbilt is playing in a bowl game for the second consecutive season for the first time in school history. Duke qualified for a bowl game for the first time in 18 years. And Rice won its second bowl game in 57 years by defeating Air Force on Saturday.

It could be a trend or a coincidence, but dynamics seem to be changing and expectations rising at academic-oriented schools.

‘‘I’m not even close to being satisfied with our level of success,’’ NU athletic director Jim Phillips said. ‘‘There’s so much more we can accomplish while staying true to our values of academics and compliance, but we’re headed in a very positive direction.’’

Several factors have combined to raise the ceiling on expectations for the Wildcats.

Fitzgerald is recruiting better athletes than ever. Take defensive linemen, for example. Luring high-caliber defensive tackles to NU always has been difficult — for whatever reason. It had become so difficult, in fact, that Fitzgerald contemplated switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 after his first season as coach in 2006.

Six years later, the Wildcats are as deep at that position as they have been and rank 20th nationally against the run. Not only that, but they might be deeper up front next season despite losing senior standout Brian Arnfelt to graduation.

‘‘We used to reach our hand in and say, ‘We’re interested in you,’ and nothing would come back,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘It wasn’t like we weren’t trying. You get sick and tired as a coach of beating your head against the wall.

‘‘[But] more and more, there are guys who are interested. And what we’ve done is, we’ve really put up bumpers, like in bowling: This is who we are as a program, this is what we’re looking for as a fit and we’re not going to deviate from that. [We’re going to] continue to press on with recruiting and raising the talent level in our program to raise the level of competition.’’

The administration has made financial commitments to Fitzgerald and his assistants that have created extraordinary stability during a era when the game is more chaotic than ever.

Designs for a new athletic and recreation complex are under way, and donations have far exceeded expectations thus far. When the project is complete, NU will have facilities equal to or superior to its Big Ten rivals, which will raise
expectations even more.

‘‘Any time you do these types of transformational projects, it will raise expectations across the board,’’ Phillips said. ‘‘Everybody knows that. That’s good, though. I wouldn’t want anything less. It’s OK if people feel expectations have been raised. We all thrive in that kind of environment. Those are healthy dynamics.’’

If the Wildcats defeat Mississippi State, they will achieve their first 10-victory season since 1995 and will snap their 64-year bowl drought. But the internal expectations being what they are, it only would be another step in the right direction.

‘‘At the end of the day, it is about competing for championships,’’ Phillips said. ‘‘I wouldn’t want
anything less for our coaches and kids and myself. That’s the ultimate goal.’’

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