Even with NU a slight favorite, the general perception remains the same: SEC players are stronger, faster and better. The conference owns six straight national championships, leaving the Big Ten in its dust.
Fitzgerald said he faced a standard question at a preseason luncheon: "How is the Big Ten going to take a step forward?"
"I had a pretty simple answer," he responded. "Win football games."
The Gator Bowl matchup against Mississippi State provides him with another opportunity to do just that. The Cats outlasted SEC opponent Vanderbilt on Sept. 8, and the Commodores – for whatever reason – canceled two future games against NU shortly after.
In fact, despite playing in a conference with a weaker reputation, NU has better wins than its Gator Bowl counterpart. Those include road victories against Syracuse and Michigan State. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs failed to challenge conference juggernauts, and have beaten just one team with a record over .500 (unless you count FCS school Jackson State).
NU can make a statement by beating another mid-level SEC school, and MSU looks for its best win of the year. In the end, Fitzgerald said, you can kick aside the conference storylines. Asked what "Big Ten versus SEC" meant to him, he put it bluntly.
"I think it means Northwestern versus Mississippi State," Fitzgerald said. "That's my focus."
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen deflected stereotypes by praising NU for its solid up-tempo approach. He credited wide receivers such as Tony Jones for their speed on the outside, and then addressed his team's difficulty in holding down spread offenses. He sees through the myth.
"When we've handled the tempo, we've had a lot of success," Mullen said. "When they start going really fast, that's when everyone struggles."
"Playing in the Big Ten, I realized what it was all about," he said. "Put those guys in our conference up against anyone. You just don't know much about teams like Northwestern when you're (from the south)."
This season, NU nearly broke through against elite competition. After close losses against Nebraska and Michigan, NU was controversially forced to settle for the Gator Bowl. Before they can even face top-tier SEC schools, the Cats need to take care of business in Jacksonville.
Three years ago, NU came close to an elusive bowl win in a memorable Outback Bowl against Auburn, but lost 38-35 in overtime.
This year, the team will accept nothing less than a victory. Time to turn the page on a famous drought. Time to live to up its top-20 ranking and earn a memorable win against the SEC Brian Arnfelt, a fifth-year senior defensive lineman, knows how significant a win would mean to this program.
"It could be the start of something big," Arnfelt said. "The program has taken tremendous strides since we've all gotten here. I'm looking forward to that continuing."
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