Snub in preseason polls motivating Northwestern

CHICAGO -- Pat Fitzgerald understands why outsiders have failed to rank his Northwestern Wildcats in various preseason top-25 polls. But he had to laugh Tuesday when asked if he agreed with the slight.

“Oh, hell no,” he said, smiling. “No. Not at all.”

Northwestern is coming off a 10-3 season that included wins over Stanford and Wisconsin. But it’s not getting much respect after losing three games -- to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee -- by a combined score of 123-16.

Fitzgerald knows that’s the main reason why 11 different preseason polls all failed to include the Wildcats: They’re looking at those losses, not the wins. Of the 20 Power-5 teams to win at least 10 games last season, only Northwestern was shut out of every single poll -- including more recent ones from ESPN, Athlon and Sports Illustrated.

“I won’t have to address it,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday. “I’m sure the guys are already reading it.”

At Big Ten media days, Fitzgerald's players seemed well-aware.

The three Northwestern attendees greeted those signs of disrespect with a shrug. This is what they expected. After all, running back Justin Jackson was temporarily left off the initial Doak Walker preseason watch list -- “Figures, right?” Jackson said -- and no one was ranking the Wildcats as a top-25 team last preseason either. Stanford was a double-digit favorite against Northwestern, too.

"That happens all the time. No one expects us to do what we do," Jackson said. "People don't respect us."

Linebacker Anthony Walker tried to understand the snub. Maybe, he thought aloud, people remember the 2012 season when Northwestern won 10 games and then followed that up with back-to-back five-win seasons. Maybe those doubters sense some déjà vu in the making.

But Walker said that’s a mistake. This is a different team, one that's learned from those past missteps.

"I know a lot of people are just scared, 'What are they going to do now? Should we believe the hype?' " Walker said. "And that's up to us. I like to tell my teammates every day, it's on us. We can't get mad that we're not ranked higher; we’re going to prove that we should be ranked higher.”

Never before in Northwestern history, which dates back to 1882, have the Wildcats ever registered back-to-back 10-win seasons. And they've had double-digit wins on only three occasions -- in 1995, 2012 and 2015. In 1996, when Fitzgerald was a senior linebacker, the Wildcats followed up a 10-win Rose Bowl season with a 9-3 record. In 2013, it dropped to 5-7 following a 10-3 campaign.

What will 2016 bring? Well, these Wildcats know most of the college football world isn't expecting much. But they're intent on proving the doubters wrong once more. In the meantime, they’re looking at those preseason polls and wondering how long it’ll take them to work their way back up again. Maybe this year, the respect will stick.

“As a program, we’re kind of used to it,” cornerback Matthew Harris said. “Year in and year out, we never get much credibility. But it’s a motivator. Hopefully, we can build upon last season and do a lot better."