A disappointing season for Northwestern used to mean no wins and a half-dozen 40-point losses.
Times have certainly changed. Not long ago, four straight bowl trips for the Wildcats would have been considered an impossible dream.
They accomplished that feat, but didn't feel last season was cause for celebration. Expectations were high, thanks to a strong senior class, and many players felt Northwestern underachieved in 2011.
The Cats pulled off one of the biggest wins in program history at No. 9 Nebraska on Nov. 5. There was also an inexplicable loss to Army and second-half collapse at Illinois, a team that closed the season with six straight defeats.
Reverse the outcome in those two games and NU could have easily finished 8-4. Then reconsider a 41-31 loss at Iowa -- a game that turned on a 98-yard interception return -- and a 9-3 record was within reach.
Instead, Northwestern settled for a 6-6 mark in the regular season, followed by a 33-22 loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston.
That senior class is gone and the Wildcats have some shoes to fill. A stumble may be in store, but it's also conceivable, considering Northwestern's overall progress, the new players will turn out to be more talented than the ones that left.
Most of the attention will fall on quarterback Kain Colter, the team's leading rusher and third-best receiver last season. But defense is the area most in need of improvement. The Wildcats ranked 11th in the Big Ten in total defense (407.7 yards per game) and 106th in the nation in sacks, with a total of 17.
If there's a bright side, the Wildcats did improve defensively late in the season, limiting division champ Michigan State to a manageable 380 yards in the regular-season finale.
"I feel great about the defense," NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. "They've worked with a chip on their shoulder. I think we've improved our depth. We're athletic and can run. Now we've got to go out and execute.
"We've worked hard to try to solve the issues we had. We've worked hard through recruiting and through work in the weight room and conditioning in the summer."
Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell was the team's leading tackler last season. The Wildcats are hoping to be more athletic at linebacker with senior David Nwabuisi, junior Damien Proby and sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo. But they'll need more pressure from the defensive front and the cornerback spot could be an adventure.
Offensively, Colter is one of the most unique athletes in NU history. The junior from Denver filled in early and often for injured quarterback Dan Persa last season, and Colter actually finished with a higher pass efficiency rating than Persa.
Colter also rushed for 654 yards and was far too valuable to leave on the sideline. So when Persa was healthy, Colter played receiver and caught 43 passes.
For now, Colter is the full-time quarterback, but expect Northwestern to use strong-armed sophomore Trevor Siemian at times.
"Both young men, we believe, we can win with," Fitzgerald said. "They're both dynamic enough to run every aspect of our offense. They've both got a great grasp of what we do and how we do things."
The starting running back is 5-8 junior Venric Mark, who was mostly a return specialist last year. Wheaton native Mike Trumpy, back from a torn ACL, is listed No. 2 on the depth chart and sophomore Treyvon Green is also in the mix after an injury scare during summer practice.
The Wildcats feel they're deep at receiver, but beyond senior Demetrius Fields (32 catches for 382 yards), they are untested. Tony Jones is back after missing his sophomore year with a knee injury and Fitzgerald is trying to keep expectations modest for USC transfer Kyle Prater.
Three starters return on the offensive line -- tackle Patrick Ward, guard Brian Mulroe and center Brandon Vitabile. They'll be joined by sophomore tackle Jack Konopka (Fremd) and guard Chuck Porcelli (Montini). True freshman Dan Vitale (Wheaton Warrenville South) will start at tight end.
Fitzgerald's summer project was to improve team chemistry. Whether that was a factor in last year's results is anyone's guess. It's probably safe to say, though, that talent level in the most recent recruiting classes will have more to do with Northwestern staying successful on the field.