Wildcats haven’t earned respect yet

Jeff Sherry

CHICAGO — It took coach Gary Barnett and his Northwestern football team nearly all of last season to earn the media’s respect. And it looks like the Wildcats might have to earn it again this season.
A poll of media representatives at the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon selected Penn State on Thursday as the favorite to win this year’s conference title. Northwestern, the defending champion, did not make the top three.
Teams received five points for a first-place vote, three points for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote. The Lions received 240 points, followed by Michigan with 213 and Ohio State with 212. Only the top three teams’ points were disclosed.
But Barnett, who led the perennial cellar dwellers to a 10-2 record and a Rose Bowl berth last year, said he wasn’t disappointed with the poll’s results. He said he almost expected it.
“I think we’re always going to face this situation,” Barnett said. “Some people still look at (last year) as a miracle Cinderella team. That’s just the way life is.
“I think the nature of our school and how long we struggled contributes to that.”
Barnett said he thinks this year’s team can be better than last year’s. Northwestern lost only two starters on offense and returns with seven players who started on defense at some point last season.
While the team didn’t garner respect, running back Darnell Autry and linebacker Pat Fitzgerald did. The two were picked offensive and defensive players of the year respectively.
Barnett also said a factor in his team’s favor is that it didn’t win the Rose Bowl. He said his team’s 41-32 loss to USC insured it would still be hungry this year.
“It’s very much unfinished business on our side,” Barnett said. “We have a little added incentive from losing last year. When you get to the top and do it all, I think it’s much harder to get yourself prepared to go climb another mountain.”
The other conference coaches don’t seem to agree with the media’s prediction for Northwestern. Penn State’s Joe Paterno said he thought the Wildcats, not his Lions, will be the team to beat.
“I personally really like to watch them play,” Paterno said. “They’re a very sound and smart team. In fact, of all the teams we played last year, I think the one game that we really got our asses kicked in was the Northwestern game. They really impressed me.”