Northwestern’s magical 1995 football season was the start of one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history.
The Wildcats went 10-2 that season, won the Big Ten championship and played in the Rose Bowl, only the second time a Northwestern team had ever gone to a bowl game.
In the 41 years before 1995, Northwestern had two winning seasons. From 1976-1981 it was 3-62-1, including a 34-game losing streak.
But 1995 changed everything. After that season, the Big Ten’s smallest school, which is also its only private school, became competitive almost every year. The team that once needed nine seasons to win 10 games has won 10 games three seasons since 2012.
The argument could be made that Ohio State is facing a Northwestern team in Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game that has the opportunity to change the perception of Northwestern football more than any Wildcats team except the 1995 team.
Northwestern’s football image is still that of the underdog, the spunky overachiever. It is respected but not generally thought of as one of the big boys. When people think about Northwestern and bowl games they think of the Music City Bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl, not the College Football Playoff.
Northwestern is aiming higher than that. It did not sign coach Pat Fitzgerald to a $3.3 million a year contract and build a spectacular $260 million indoor practice facility on the shore of Lake Michigan to play in second-tier bowls.
Winning the Big Ten championship and doing it by beating Ohio State would take Northwestern to a different level.
They won’t say so, but Ohio State’s players and coaches want to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee Saturday night. Northwestern wants to shock the world and become one of the football elite.