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TELANDER: Northwestern has right to dream of making Big Ten title game

Strong-armed Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian (above) can throw with best them. He splits time with KaColter. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Strong-armed Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian (above) can throw with the best of them. He splits time with Kain Colter. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: October 29, 2012 7:03AM



The Northwestern football team is 4-0.

That’s undefeated, folks, and maybe we should stop right here before Saturday’s game against Indiana at Dyche Stadium (Ryan Field, if you’re young and don’t know the name was never supposed to change) and call it a day.

Undefeated and Northwestern go together like hot and ice cube.

But here’s the real kicker: The football Wildcats have a very real chance of going 7-0.

They’ve beaten Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College and South Dakota. After Indiana, they play Penn State and Minnesota. Win all those, and they’re 7-0, heading into the Nebraska game Oct. 20 at home.

Yes, it’s a reach.  And, no, there is not a team in the country that Northwestern is guaranteed to steamroll over. Northwestern’s A-game is as needed as the cloth on a parachute.

But it could happen. And what it would mean is the possibility of 8-0 is there and, by God, maybe an 11-1 or 10-2 season and a possible spot in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Did you even know there’s a Big Ten championship game? There is.  It’s a follow-the-money escalation that means the teams playing will then compete in their 14th games of the season when they play in a holiday bowl. Fourteen games used to be too many for NFL players, let alone college kids. But, well, whatever. For now, I’ll quote the trendiest sports-world cliché out there: It is what it is.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald, he of the jarhead haircut and severe yet paternalistic personality, would no sooner say his Wildcats have a chance of going deep into the season undefeated than he would say the color purple annoys him. But other than for eternal powerhouse Ohio State (which cannot be damaged by scandal or embarrassment), the Big Ten is up for grabs.

Other than the Buckeyes, ranked 14th, only one conference team, Michigan State, is ranked in the Top 25, at 20th. Penn State is a damaged thing. Undefeated Minnesota can’t be that good. And Iowa, Michigan and Illinois are all beatable.

If Northwestern wins Saturday, it will almost certainly break into the rankings, maybe into the teens. And how about that? Sorry, but if you want to be big-time, NU, we’re going to make outrageous — and big-time — predictions about you.

And it may be the right time.

Players such as tailback Venric Mark and quarterback/wide receiver/you-name-it Kain Colter are exciting and talented. Strong-armed quarterback Trevor Siemian can throw with the best of them. And as long as teams don’t pass too much — Syracuse had 482 yards and four touchdowns through the air against the Cats — Northwestern’s defense is solid against the run and good at creating timely turnovers.

So, expectations. Why not compete for the top rung? Why not bring back shades of Gary Barnett and that march to the 1996 Rose Bowl?

In this era of exploitation, joblessness and Wall Street shenanigans, it’s clear to all that a Northwestern full scholarship to play a sport has a certain undeniable monetary — and thus, socially relevant — cachet. This ain’t the Ivy League by Lake Michigan anymore.

As Fitzgerald hollered at his players after some bad performances, they weren’t getting ‘‘$60,000 a year’’ to perform like that. Sixty grand is a little more than what it costs to go to NU without financial help, but it’s not far off. As ‘‘amateurs,’’ full-ride ballplayers are doing OK in Evanston. If they get real and valid educations.

Athletic director Jim Phillips is adamant about the culture of Northwestern not being dumbed down or criminaled up to compete with the big sports-mad state schools.

He’ll instantly tell you that the 486 athletes at NU had a combined 3.21 grade-point average in 2011, that 206 earned Academic All-Big Ten awards, that every athlete did some kind of community service during the school year, adding up to a school-record 5,000 man-hours. And he’ll remind you that last year the American Football Coaches Association rated Northwestern as the No. 1 school in the country for graduating its players.

And talk is of a new sports facility on campus that will have a weight and training center something close to the size of Cook County.  Athletes, most of whom are masochists for training, must be drooling.

Dandy, dandy, dandy.

But kicking butt in the Big Ten right now is the order of the day.

‘‘I’m exceptionally proud of the success we’ve had across all of our sports,’’ Phillips said. ‘‘But we can improve in everything.’’

Like 7-0? Like top of the heap?

‘‘We’re in a new place,’’ Phillips admitted.



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