Thorson & Jones
This could be a historic season for Northwestern football, as a school-record 11th win is in reach. Where would the 2015 Wildcats rank on a list of the best Northwestern seasons ever? Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

Welcome back to six degrees! Here’s how it works…every week, I’ll start with Northwestern’s opponent and follow my stream of consciousness until I get to something interesting and rankable. Then, I’ll rank the top six of that category which relates to the Wildcats’ opponent for the week.

This week: Northwestern.

No, it’s not an inter-squad scrimmage, and no, this isn’t some sort of attempted diss about Illinois: it’s time to talk about Northwestern history because Northwestern might be having a historic season. If the Wildcats beat Illinois Saturday AND win their bowl game, NU will finish the 2015 season with a school-record 11 wins. It’s crazy to think about this Wildcat team in the pantheon of great Northwestern squads, alongside the 2012 Gator Bowl team, the 1995 Rose Bowl team, and, well, who else, exactly? 

I’m glad you asked. For help framing your “best team in Northwestern football history” Thanksgiving dinner debates, here’s my ranking of the top six teams in school history, NOT including this year’s team.

6. 2000 Wildcats (8-4, lost Alamo Bowl)

This season is the “lifetime achievement award” of Northwestern football. The end-of-season record isn’t awesome, but the Wildcats finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten with Michigan and Purdue (Purdue went to the Rose Bowl due to head-to-head wins against both the Wildcats and Wolverines). More importantly, many pundits credit this Northwestern’s 54-51 victory over Michigan as the most important game in the history of the spread offense. In addition to knocking off the 12th-ranked Wolverines, NU upset sixth-ranked Wisconsin, 47-44 in double overtime and toppled 18th-ranked Michigan State 37-17 in East Lansing. The road loss to unranked Iowa that kept this team out of the Rose Bowl hurts,  as do non-conference beatdowns by LaDanian Tomlinson’s TCU and Eric Crouch’s Nebraska, but this bunch of Wildcats showed the world that the spread offense could work on the big stage. Paced by 2,000-yard, 23-touchdown running back Damien Anderson and dual-threat quarterback Zak Kustok, this Northwestern team came within one victory of the Rose Bowl.

5. 2012 Wildcats (10-3, won Gator Bowl)

These Wildcats finished the season ranked 17th, their 10 victories are tied for the most in school history, and their Gator Bowl victory was the school’s first bowl win since 1948. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian ran the two-quarterback system well, Venric Mark was explosive out of the backfield and in the return game, and Mike Trumpy was “the ball-carrier” before Justin Jackson. Northwestern didn’t play a ranked team all season, led in the fourth quarter of every game they played, and lost heartbreakers to Nebraska (led by 12 in the fourth quarter), Penn State (led by 11 in the fourth), and Michigan (Hail Mary to set up a field goal and force overtime). A Gator Bowl victory over SEC foe Mississippi State cured some of the heartbreak, ending a great season that could have been even better on a high note.

4. 1996 Wildcats (9-3, lost Citrus Bowl)

The year after “the year,” Northwestern had a solid season. Gary Barnett’s 1996 bunch is the only Northwestern team every to hold a ranking in the pre-season and post-season AP polls. A season-opening loss at Wake Forest got rid of the pre-season ranking, but the Wildcats got back in the national picture with a 17-16 home win over sixth-ranked Michigan, winning on a field goal with 13 seconds to play. Northwestern also collected a 40-13 victory over ranked Iowa, but the Wildcats lost to 15th-ranked Penn State to finish the season tied with Ohio State atop the Big Ten. Due to a rule preventing the same team from playing in the Rose Bowl two years in a row, the Buckeyes went to Pasadena and the Wildcats headed to the Citrus Bowl to face Peyton Manning and Tennessee. Manning had a field day against the ‘Cats, throwing for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 20-point win. Despite the bowl loss, Steve Schnur, Darnell Autry, and the ’96 team achieved something rarely seen in Northwestern football history: consistent success.

3. 1936 Wildcats (7-1)

Here’s where things get fun. It’s hard to find information about the 1936 Wildcats, other than this: their coach’s name was Pappy Waldorf (!!!) and they spent three weeks as the top-ranked team in college football. Northwestern won the Western Conference and beat top-ranked Minnesota 6-0 to earn the number one ranking, which the Wildcats held until their season finale against Notre Dame. The Irish knocked off previously unbeaten Northwestern 26-6, spoiling the Wildcats’ perfect season and giving Minnesota the national championship. Northwestern finished the season ranked number seven, tied for the highest post-season ranking in school history.

2. 1948 Wildcats (8-2, won Rose Bowl)

The only Northwestern squad to ever win the Granddaddy of ‘Em All did so after the 1948 season. NU finished the regular season 7-2, losing only to Big 9 (yup, it was the Big 9 at this point) champion Michigan and second-ranked Notre Dame. Remember that no-repeat rule that kept the ‘Cats out of the 1997 Rose Bowl? Well, it kept Michigan out of the 1949 game, and the ‘Cats went in place of the Wolverines. Northwestern faced fifth-ranked Cal in the Rose Bowl, and the Wildcats won the back-and-forth game 20-14. Running back Ed Tunnicliff scored the game-winning touchdown off a direct snap in the fourth quarter, giving coach Robert Voigts and the Wildcats their first (and to this day, only) Rose Bowl victory.

1. 1995 Wildcats (10-2, lost Rose Bowl)

Northwestern may have lost this Rose Bowl, but times had changed since 1948. College football had exploded onto the national scene, and if it was a big deal to make it to Pasadena in 1948, it was a REALLY big deal in 1995. The Wildcats started the season unranked, but beat ninth-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend to open the season. After a disappointing loss in the home opener to Miami of Ohio, NU rattled off eight straight wins to finish with a perfect Big Ten record. The ‘Cats beat three ranked conference foes (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State), and sealed a berth in the Rose Bowl when Michigan beat Ohio State on the season’s final day. The Wildcats faced USC in the big game, and rallied from a 24-7 deficit to take a 32-31 fourth-quarter lead before losing 41-32. The ’48 team is certainly a strong contender, but I’ll take the ’95 team as the best Northwestern team of all time, thanks to increased interest in college football and the team’s victory over Notre Dame. 

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