The Northwestern football Wildcats earned their eighth win Saturday bringing them closer to playing on New Years Eve. After beating Purdue Saturday the question becomes how does this Northwestern team compare to the other 8-2 teams in country?
Northwestern has the third strongest strength of schedule out of the eight 8-2 teams in the ESPN college football playoff rankings. Currently Northwestern stands at 20 in the playoff ranking. While their strength of schedule puts them in the conversation of being ranked higher, there are some points to be made why they are so low.
Northwestern’s best win of the season came in the first week when they beat Stanford 16-6. This is a great win for Northwestern but there are some factors to put into context. Rarely is a team in full form in week one. Stanford came into the season with a lot of hype as a team who could make a strong push into the playoff, but didn’t start out like one. It took Stanford a few weeks to figure themselves out and if the two were to meet again it is hard to see the same result. Stanford is now 8-2 and one of the teams with a higher strength of schedule ranking than Northwestern.
While Northwestern can hang their hat on their week one win against Stanford, there are some stats showing Northwestern is not the same team as the one who started the season. A great stat to show that is ESPN’s game control stat. This calculates how a team will be in control from the start of the game to the end. Anyone who has watched Northwestern all season knows this is an area where they have struggled the most.
At the start of the season Northwestern’s defense was one of the best in the country. They were rushing the quarterback, clogging gaps and most importantly stopping teams on third down. The tone of the game was always being set by their defense.
With the defense getting stops the offense was doing just enough to get by. Their main star was sophomore Justin Jackson. There were games where he was getting close to 30 touches out of the backfield a game. While that style of football is a little outdated, it was working for Northwestern.
Then, the Michigan game happened. The week leading up to that game the conversation was which defense was going to shine. Well, tho conversations didn’t matter after the first play of the game when Michigan returned the opening kickoff and took complete control. Northwestern looked like the little brother who was out matched by the older brother in every way in that game.
Eventhough Northwestern lost they had a chance to redeem themselves. Losing to a very good Michigan team would not look as bad if they can bounce back and beat Iowa at home. But even in that game Northwestern was playing catchup the entire game. Two blow out losses to quality components in the middles of the season makes this Northwestern team look like they aren’t ready to complete?
Is that an entirely bad thing? Let’s take a look at this Northwestern team.
They are led in some of the biggest positions – quarterback, running back and linebacker – by underclassmen. As stated before Clayton Thorson is a redshirt freshman and Justin Jackson is a sophomore. But sophomore Anthony Walker, who was doing his best impression of the Boz on the field, stepped into a role that he may not have been ready for.
Prior to the season if you would have told me Northwestern would be 8-2 at this point I would have laughed in your face, no offense. I thought that having to rely on guys who were so young and inexperience with leading a college football team there would be some growing pains.
There has been some pains throughout this season, but for the most part these young players have shown they can be trusted.
While this Northwestern team has a nice story, the selection committee really doesn’t take that into effect. One of the other stats they do think about when coming out with these ratings is strength of schedule. This is where Northwestern hurts and helps itself at the same time.
I like to think about myself as a positive person, so let’s start there. Northwestern non-conference schedule is one of the reasons why we are having this conversation. Starting off the season by playing Stanford and then Duke and winning those games are some of Northwestern’s strongest arguments, especially when some teams ranked higher will not schedule games like those two for their non-conference games.
The point that hurts Northwestern is the fact they play in the Big Ten West. It is no secret the Big a Ten West is not that strong. The best team. In the west right now is Iowa, the team that beat Northwestern 40-10. That being said, Northwestern can only play who is in front of them and what they need to do is exactly what they have been doing, winning. If Northweetern continues to win they are going to stay in the rankings and have a good chance of playing in a big bowl game.
Despite all the stats that say Northwestern is not a strong 8-2 team, they are 8-2 and have a very good chance at ending the season with a 10-2 record.
While head coach Pat Fitzgerald should be looking to prep his team to run the table he has to be excited for what this season has done for the growth and development of his players.
Having his young players grow up in a culture of winning and being rewarded for their work during the week is the best lesson. While on their winning streak players kept crediting their work in practice to the success on Saturday. That may have just been a very PR friendly response but looking at the players while they said it made it feel like just more than that.
The Northwestern players will also learn what it is like to play in a truly big game. When they lost to Michigan it looked like Northwestern didn’t know how to handle their emotions in a game with two really good teams in a hostile environment. Now, the players will learn what it is like to truly play like there is no tomorrow and battle against a team who wants to win just as bad as they do. This is an experience that will carry over into next season and can change the way players train in the offseason and during the season as they learn what they can do better to succeed in big games.
So as the season draws to an end Northwestern should not be too worried about what their ranking is going to be and how ESPN ranks them, Northwestern just needs to worry about Northwestern.