Best College Football Team That May Have Finally Allowed Its Long-Tormented Fan Base a Collective Exhale 

Northwestern Wildcats

It probably had a lot to do with the fourth-quarter collapse against the Cornhuskers the week before. Or the giveaway in Happy Valley earlier in the season against what should have been a decimated Penn State team—or perhaps grief was held over from the consecutive crushing losses to Army, Illinois, and Michigan in 2011. But when I visited Ryan Field in Evanston last season on a sunny and brisk late October afternoon to watch the Northwestern Wildcats host the Iowa Hawkeyes, the crowd—including the Reader's Mick Dumke, a diehard Cats fan (and author of a 2011 Best of Chicago blurb about Ryan Field: "Best Place to See an Improbable Comeback or Sickening Collapse on the Gridiron")—was in good spirits but understandably apprehensive. Perpetually the whipping boy in the formidable, old-school Big Ten, the Wildcats have had success under coach Pat Fitzgerald (50-39 over his seven seasons), but have often lacked the fortitude to hold off the conference's big boys, especially when the fourth quarter rolls around. And though Northwestern was simply a better team than the Hawkeyes—both on that Saturday and the season as a whole—when they marched into the fourth with a commanding 28-10 lead, the worried Cats fans weren't toasting (mostly due to a late third-quarter score). They were waiting for something to go wrong. The Hawkeyes did score another touchdown—hearts dropped, teeth clenched, and eyes averted—but the potential comeback, fortunately, never came to pass. And though the Wolverines took down the Cats a couple of weeks later in Ann Arbor, a win against rival Michigan State and a subsequent Gator Bowl victory—the team's first bowl win in 64 years—might suggest Northwestern fans can stop gnawing at their nails during every fourth-quarter huddle. And that's not even mentioning the top-20 recruiting class heading to Evanston in 2014. (Not to jinx it or anything.)

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