College football top 25 countdown: No. 10 Northwestern

Coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats have steadily been working toward greatness and have their sights set on winning the Big Ten and playing in the Rose Bowl.

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Thirty years ago (1983) Stanford and Northwestern put their brainy football heads together to go a combined 3-19.

And no one blinked, cared, or was the least bit surprised, because mediocrity then was considered the price to be paid for academic excellence.

So look at these guys now?

Stanford is the defending Rose Bowl champion and a top-five preseason team while Northwestern seems to be fast-tracking on a similar course.

The perfect ending would be these schools playing Jan.1 in Pasadena.

Most experts would argue Northwestern is too high at the No. 10 spot, but we're giving college credit where it's due and taking a huge (but hardly nonsensical) flier on a team, and coach, we believe in.

Northwestern returns 15 starters from a squad that finished 10-3 last season with a win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

Mississippi State, if you didn't know, is a team from the vaunted Southeastern Conference.

Pat Fitzgerald, entering his eighth season at Northwestern, may be the best coach in the Big Ten and top 10 in the country. He's gone 50-39 in Evanston, Ill., while doing everything clean and right. He's reinvented a football program that went winless in the seasons of 1955, '78, '80, '81 and 1989.

Gary Barnett got the Purple back to Pasadena back in 1995, but Fitzgerald has been working on a more sustained excellence.

Northwestern also lost that Rose Bowl, to USC, and it's become a cornerstone of Coach Fitz's motivational arsenal.

Interestingly, Northwestern opens the season at California, the team it defeated in the 1949 Rose Bowl. That was Northwestern's last bowl win until last season.

"We're not satisfied with just going to a bowl game anymore," Fitzgerald said this summer.

The team's goals have not changed: win the Big Ten and get back to the Rose Bowl.

"We want to be a top-tier program," defensive end Tyler Scott said at his team's media day in August. "We're almost there. We need a Big Ten title to be that."

One thing the Wildcats need to do is learn how to tie up loose ends. Three blown second-half leads last year against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan cost the team something really special.

"We really have to finish those games," Scott said.

Few teams will be more fun to watch. Northwestern has successfully massaged a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, who produced a combined 2,184 passing yards last season and 942 more rushing.

Colter accounted for 894 of the rush yards, while Siemian is the better pure passer.

There is competition at the position but not hostility.

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