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Northwestern, Washington can elevate national profiles with upsets

Northwestern head coach PFitzgerald reacts as he watches his team play against Michigan State second half an NCAA college football

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald reacts as he watches his team play against Michigan State in the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, in Evanston, Ill. Michigan State won 31-17. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:30AM

You think Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern program is overshadowed in this town by the Bears? Just imagine Steve Sarkisian’s Washington ­Huskies trying to fight for scraps of ­attention in Seattle, where ­Russell Wilson and the 4-0 Seahawks are more popular and appreciated than a perfect cup of coffee on a cloudless day.

There have been many comparisons of Northwestern to Stanford of late — both are elite academic institutions, and both are trending forward as football programs — but the truth is the Wildcats’ progress lags far behind the Cardinal’s. If NU is nearing the red zone, Stanford is first-and-goal well inside the 5.

Fitzgerald and Northwestern have more in common with Sarkisian and Washington, and not just because each coach and his team has an opportunity to pull off a upset on Saturday night that would alter the course of the 2013 college football season in a big way.

Both Fitzgerald and Sarkisian, in their eighth and fifth seasons, respectively, were born in 1974. Both were national stars as players in the mid-1990s, Fitzgerald a linebacker at NU (which he led to the Rose Bowl in ’95) and Sarkisian the quarterback at BYU (which he led to a 14-1 campaign in ’96).

Both are confident, serious, highly respected program builders. Incidentally — and, their fan bases hope, irrelevantly — both are seeing their names attached to USC rumors since Lane Kiffin was fired last weekend.

But the similarities are less about their résumés and personalities than their teams, separated by one spot in the national rankings. Is anyone outside the Chicago area really taking the Wildcats seriously as contenders to win the Big Ten? Is anyone outside the Huskies’ neck of the woods really envisioning UW representing the Pac-12 three months down the line in the Rose Bowl?

For the most part, the answers are no and no. Sorry, it’s just the truth.

That could change with an upset or two on Saturday night.

“We have a unique, quiet confidence about us,” Sarkisian said this week. “It’s not arrogance. It’s not that way at all.”

It’s not even justified, some would argue, based on the Huskies’ back-to-back-to-back seasons with 7-6 overall records with 5-4 Pac-12 marks. Even for a coach who took over an 0-12 program before the 2009 campaign, the slow progress has been frustrating.

And there has been progress, despite the stagnating records. That’s what happens when you share a division with ever-improving Oregon and Stanford and are part of a flourishing conference that looks up at only the SEC.

Like Sarkisian, Fitzgerald is far from wide-eyed these days.

“Nothing changes for us this week,” he said. “Our routine is our routine.”

Some would argue it’s pointless to pretend a prime-time game against Ohio State — which NU hasn’t faced in five years — isn’t far different than any other. If this doesn’t represent a potential next step for a program that’s overshadowed in its division by Michigan and Nebraska and has never finished better than 5-3 in league play under Fitzgerald, then what would?

Quality of competition is where the Huskies and Wildcats diverge from each other somewhat. We all know Oregon and Stanford are great, but is there any solid ­evidence that a single division foe is better than Northwestern? Not at all. Ohio State, from the opposite division, is the only team standing above the Big Ten crowd.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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