College football fans and pundits have been pondering this week whether Northwestern's prime time game against Ohio State this Saturday is the biggest game in the program's history (e.g., here and here). Because of the hype, excitement, energy, and sheer magnitude surrounding the game, some analysts imply that Northwestern will play like a team possessed, transcending their normal limits, a la Penn State at home against the Buckeyes in 2005.
Ohio State might very well get Northwestern's A+ game
tomorrow Saturday night, but I question whether that's a given, or even a likelihood. When you put performers on the biggest, brightest stages for the first time in their lives, some of them thrive under the ultra-high pressure and glare, but others wilt. And you never really know which way they'll react until the moment arrives.
The reason this is Northwestern's biggest game in history is that they've never played in a truly marquee game before. When they dismantled Miss State in the Gator Bowl, two other Big Ten teams were playing simultaneously in more prestigious bowl games on other channels. Prior to that game, you could argue that all of Northwestern's great victories - in 1995, 1996, 2000, 2012 - occurred in games that "flew under the radar." You know, 12 noon regional games, which Midwestern football junkies like you and me watched, but few outside of the Midwest even knew were going on.
How will Northwestern's players react to being in "primetime" for the first time? I guess we'll find Saturday night.