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We’re No. 11! For Northwestern, best ranking since 1996 is merely a start

The Wildcats’ success through five games isn’t quaint or adorable at all. Chances are, they’re only going to become a much bigger deal in the weeks ahead.

Brandon Joseph eats up some return yards after an interception.
Brandon Joseph eats up some return yards after an interception.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Stop the presses: Northwestern has climbed to No. 11 in the country, its loftiest ranking in 24 years.

Yes, the Wildcats — coming off a 17-7 victory against Wisconsin at Ryan Field — are moving up in the world. Slide over, Ohio State. Heck, you, too, Notre Dame and Alabama. Team Purple is 5-0 for the first time since 1996.

How quaint. How adorable. Let’s all love on the Wildcats for five minutes before it ends, right?

‘‘We just need the respect we deserve,’’ senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV said.

That kind of respect always has been elusive for Northwestern. When the Wildcats are good, they’re painted as overachievers. When they’re not good — or when they’re outright bad, as in a 3-9 season in 2019 — they recede into the background, all but forgotten.

But these Wildcats? Their success through five games isn’t quaint or adorable at all. And, chances are, they’re only going to become a much bigger deal in the weeks ahead.

Here’s what’s left on the schedule: Saturday at Michigan State, which might be the worst team in the Big Ten. A week later at Minnesota, which is a shell of its 2019 self. And then a home date with ever-beatable Illinois. Guess who will be favored to win each of those games?

Enough of the 5-0 talk. Let the 8-0 buzz begin. That record would be more than enough to line up a matchup against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game Dec. 19 in Indianapolis.

And enough of the No. 11 talk, too. Let the top-four daydreaming start. Maybe it’s farfetched to think the Wildcats are capable of running the table, capped by a victory against the super-heavyweight Buckeyes. But if they pull that off, it’ll be College Football Playoff time.

OK, so it’s not altogether easy for just anyone to buy into these potential outcomes. But the Wildcats have pretty high opinions of themselves — and they should.

‘‘This wasn’t an upset tonight in our locker room,’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters on a video conference after the game Saturday against Wisconsin. ‘‘We fully expected it.’’

A core group of seniors has led a mighty bounce-back from a miserable 2019 season. The group includes Brown, linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher and receivers Kyric McGowan and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. Graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey came along as a final, invaluable piece at quarterback.

‘‘We’ve got outstanding football players, in my opinion,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We’ve got a bunch of guys who are going to be potentially All-Big Ten, potentially All-American, potentially in the NFL. . . .

‘‘I just think our squad is a tough group of football players. They love the game, they love playing for each other and I think it shows in the physical toughness and mental toughness that they demonstrate on the field. There’s not a lot of pomp; there’s not a lot of circumstance. There’s just playing the game the way we try to teach it, and that’s the right way — playing tough, physical, four-quarter football.’’

No, this isn’t Ohio State. It isn’t Notre Dame, Alabama or Clemson. The Wildcats don’t have that brand of jaw-dropping ability, no matter how irked they got at ESPN studio analyst Joey Galloway for questioning their talent last week.

But what the Wildcats do — what they’re made of — is working. And it’s no fluke.

‘‘Everybody thinking [because] we came off a 3-9 season that we’re [expletive]? No,’’ Brown said. ‘‘Forget all that.’’