Photo Credit: Phil Sears - USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Phil Sears – USA TODAY Sports

In his ten-year tenure as head coach, Pat Fitzgerald has made a point of scheduling teams from academically comparable schools. After Northwestern’s week one victory over Stanford, he said that he and Jim Phillips planned on scheduling those teams from Fitzgerald’s first day at the helm.

“We set a plan about our schedule when we first got together,” Fitzgerald said. “Number one, we want to play a challenging schedule by playing academic comparables, you know the Stanford’s, the Notre Dame’s, the Duke’s, Boston College in the past, Vanderbilt, so on and so forth.”

“These are the types of teams we should be playing, and, yeah we learn about ourselves, absolutely. I’ll go back to even when I was playing. We played Notre Dame in the opener,” Fitzgerald added. “If you want to get yourself into position to win a championship, you’ve got to test your team.”

Fitzgerald doesn’t necessarily need to schedule academic comparables to test his team, but these programs do provide a good measuring stick.

Northwestern and college football programs at academically similar universities are somewhat limited in the players they can recruit due to academic requirements, and they are only going to attract prospects who are willing to take on a strenuous college course load. Although there are many other factors in recruiting, these programs are likely to perform on a similar level on the field.

The Wildcats are also in direct recruiting competition with many of these schools. For example, since 2010, 30 recruits who have held offers from NU and Stanford have selected one of the two schools. 23 of them chose Stanford. A win like the victory Northwestern had to open the season can shift that trend.

That ten-point defeat of the Cardinal was only one victory in a long line of success for Northwestern against similar academic opponents, as noted by Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein.

Rice is not a very formidable opponent, but some of those programs – such as Notre Dame and Stanford – are perennial contenders. All of the other programs – Vanderbilt, Boston College, Duke, Cal and Syracuse – have at least experienced stints of mild success in the last seven years. 13-2 is an outstanding mark against these teams.

Northwestern’s success in the classroom during this stretch is what makes the run truly remarkable. Among these nine programs (NU included), the Wildcats are the leaders in graduation success rate over the last four years.

Graduation success rate is a metric used by the NCAA to calculate academic success among college athletes. And it is pretty self-explanatory. GSR is the percentage of scholarship athletes from any given freshmen class that graduate with six years from enrollment. It also includes transfers to the school and non-scholarship athletes, in some cases.

The graduation success rate differs from the federal graduation rate in that it does include athletes who transfer to a different school or leave to play professionally while in good academic standing.

Over the last four sets of data released by the NCAA (2010-11 through 2013-14), which encompass the freshmen cohorts who arrived on campus from 2004 to 2007, Northwestern football’s average GSR is 96.25. That very well could be the best in the country.

Notre Dame (95.25), Rice (94.25), Boston College (93.25), Stanford (92.25) and Duke (91.75) are all close behind. NU and these five schools made up six of the top seven programs in the 2013 GSR rankings. Vanderbilt (83) and Syracuse (78.25) are still well above the national average of 71 percent for FBS schools while Cal has an abysmal rate of 49.25 percent.

When the Wildcats face off with these academic comparables each September, the most elite teams aren’t on the field. But the best college football programs are.

There are very few FBS teams that combine strong on-field performance with a world-class education like Northwestern does. To boot, over the last decade, the Wildcats have owned those programs in head-to-head competition. NU gets another chance to continue that trend Saturday against Duke.

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