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Stanford, Notre Dame and ... Northwestern?

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Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has the Wildcats in contention to join Notre Dame and Stanford as academic powerhouses with consistent top-25 football programs. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has the Wildcats in contention to join Notre Dame and Stanford as academic powerhouses with consistent top-25 football programs. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

Elite academics and elite football: the holy grail for collegiate institutions in America.

Elite does not mean top 25 every once in a while; it means best of the best, of the highest order, constant success, accept no substitutes.

Of the top 20 academic American universities ranked by U.S. News and World Report, only three had a top-25 football program in 2012 — Stanford, Notre Dame and Northwestern.

But, the Cardinal and Irish are used to doing it. While each has had some gridiron struggles through the years, Notre Dame just played for a national title and Stanford has finished in the season-ending top 10 three straight times.

They got what the Wildcats want. Neither Northwestern nor Fitzgerald, a 1997 NU grad, will compromise the school’s academics to get football wins, but also, neither thinks they have to. That being said, the program is also not satisfied at a 10-3 mark and its first bowl win since the Truman administration (1948). The ‘Cats want Big Ten titles and BCS consideration year in and out. To get there, it’ll take more than hope. Here's three reasons Northwestern can make a run at the holy grail.

1. Commit to the 'Cat

For many men, commitment is a four-letter word, but you aren’t Pat Fitzgerald’s man unless you say the word.

The Northwestern coach has built his regime on honesty and integrity, ensuring each signed recruit is as dedicated to a Wildcat experience as he is. It’s not just lip service. Only two recruits have dropped from a commitment during Fitzgerald’s tenure. A significant achievement in the current FBS landscape in which commitments are rarely worth more than the pen they’re signed with.

Fitzgerald and company understand this and make sure to keep tabs on all their recruits who are potentially being sniped even after commitments. But Fitzgerald won’t participate in that and practices what he preaches: “We commit to you, you commit to us.”

The mantra has been the catalyst to a five-straight-bowl-game run by the Wildcats, who beat an SEC team (Mississippi State) by two touchdowns in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl earlier this year. Fitzgerald’s recruiting strategy draws in serious, dedicated athletes who are looking for more than flash. Coach Fitz promises loyalty and success, which he can do honestly and more aggressively each year his team competes in the postseason.

If the success keeps moving forward, the recruits will follow. Slowly, but surely Northwestern is climbing the recruiting-class rankings lists. At No. 8 in the Big Ten (Rivals.com), the 2013 NU class was the strongest in Fitzgerald’s tenure. With five committed for 2014 already, a ranking in the league’s top half isn’t out of the question — especially when NU has something else to promote.

2. Check out the new digs

Northwestern’s Ryan Field is bad. It’s small, it’s cramped, it’s boring. Whether or not that should matter is up for debate, but it does. It's not an attractive side-by-side when your stadium looks like a Pop Warner field compared to your counterparts. Capacity at Ryan Field is 47,130, lowest in the Big Ten. Memorial Stadium in Bloomington seats 52,929, and both pale in comparison to top facilities at Michigan (107,501), Penn State (106,572) and Ohio State (102,329), all ranked in the nation’s top-five by capacity.

Not only does the team play on Saturdays in the park, it also practices and trains in an adjacent facility.

Help is on the way. In September 2012, the NU board approved a $225-million athletic complex on the lakefront just north of Chicago. While the team’s home turf will still be on Ryan Field, it will now have state-of-the-art facilities similar to any of its rivals.

Not only that, in February, the program inked a multi-year deal with the Chicago Cubs to play up to five games at Wrigley Field in the near future. The details are not yet ironed out, but the games will likely be in November starting as soon as 2014. It’s just another chip to play at the recruiting table.

“We plan on winning and competing for a Big Ten and national championship, and to have that kid of opportunity in recruiting to attract young men for a unique experience that no one else can sell was something that was very appealing to myself and staff," Fitzgerald said to the press after the deal.

3. It can win … now

The 2013 season is key for Northwestern football. The wave of momentum feels like it is still rising, but one letdown could set the 'Cats back on multiple fronts.

To become Stanford or Notre Dame, a string of real success is essential. The Big Ten will be improved in 2013, making the task daunting, but doable. Northwestern returns 14 starters, mostly at skill positions, and its best player, Kain Colter (what the quarterback/running back/wide receiver’s role will be is a whole other column).

Like any team, there are holes to fill. For Northwestern, shoring up the offensive line is critical for a team 19th in the nation in rushing in 2012. But the talent is there and if it can flourish, Northwestern could stockpile wins once again.

While Northwestern won a significant bowl game, it wasn't on the big stage. Nobody was talking about the Wildcats on the national scene, but that press will certainly help regional and national recruiting. It can happen. Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune there was an "amazing electricity and buzz" around his program. That's the type of feeling that can spread, guide momentum and build confidence. That could make the difference between 9-3 and 10-2 and a Big Ten title game, which would give the 'Cats a shot at a BCS bowl.  

The 'Cats visit Cal to open the season before three non-conference home games (Syracuse, Western Michigan, Maine). A visit from Ohio State and visit to Camp Randall (Wisconsin) are next before the ‘Cats host Minnesota and travel to Iowa. Northwestern should conservatively be 6-2 before a big road game at Leaders Division rival Nebraska. Home games with Michigan and Michigan State follow before a rivalry game in Champaign.

It’s realistic to give Northwestern nine wins in that schedule and reasonable to say they can go 10-2 if some breaks go the Wildcats' way. That would put them in the thick of it; however, breaks can go both ways. A step backward could mean a 6-6 slate. Northwestern needs to avoid that. Consistent success is the mark of domination. Administration would not allow a year of poor marks. The football program must be the same way if it wants to achieve the elite status it is striving for.