Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A ranked Northwestern team gets off to a hot start and into the national title race, only to underachieve and knock themselves out. If not, that’s understandable, as that was the situation in 1959.
That year, Ara Parseghian, (yes that Ara Parseghian), led the Wildcats to a 6-0 start with wins over #2 Oklahoma and #5 Iowa in the first two weeks, followed by wins over Minnesota, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Indiana.
In the first week of November, Northwestern looked poised for their second Rose Bowl berth, and possibly a national title. Yet, it was only a fever dream as the Wildcats lost to #9 Wisconsin the next week, dropping to #6 in the polls and then losing to Michigan State and Illinois to close out the season at 6-3.
To make matters worse, Northwestern underwent a similar collapse the year before when a 5-1 start with wins over #19 Michigan and #5 Ohio State, pushed them to #4 in the polls. But three straight losses doomed the Wildcats to a 5-4 finish.
By 1964, Parseghian went to Notre Dame and the rest is history as both programs followed different trajectories from their 1959 encounter.
2020 is all too similar, following the old cliche, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This year’s Wildcats started 5-0 and climbed to #8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, besting their previous high of in 2015.
Wisconsin looked like their biggest obstacle to a Big Ten West title, and they passed that test easily with a 17-7 win. Standing in their way were mediocre Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois squads. Despite the path looking good on paper, the Wildcats strayed from it in a 29-20 loss to a Spartan team that lost to Rutgers and had been humiliated by Iowa a week earlier.
Now, the Wildcats look to be out of a New Year’s Six spot, unless they can win the Big Ten. Out of the national title race, and likely the top 12, the pains of 1959 ring all too familiar to Northwestern fans. Hopefully, the Wildcats can recover and salvage what has already been an outstanding season in their annals.