Jason Dorow (@jasondorow): For just the fourth time in program history, Northwestern has 10 wins in a single season. The Wildcats closed the regular season on a five-game winning streak to finish 10-2 and 6-2 in conference, compiling one of the best resumes in the Big Ten. Is it good enough to get Northwestern into a New Year’s Six bowl though?
First here’s some information on the New Year’s Six. The NY6 includes both College Football Playoff semifinals played on Dec. 31 (the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl), as well as four other games played on New Year’s Eve (Peach Bowl) and New Year’s Day (Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl). After the CFP committee selects the four teams to compete in the semifinals, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl will fill their games with representatives from specific conferences. Contractual obligations stipulate that the Rose Bowl pits a Big Ten team against a Pac-12 squad and the Sugar Bowl has a Big 12 team face off with an SEC foe.
At this point in the selection process, it’s fairly safe to assume that these teams will already be placed in bowl games: Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Iowa, Florida, the winner of USC vs. Stanford, and TCU or Baylor. This could fluctuate some after this upcoming weekend because North Carolina could qualify for the playoff by defeating Clemson, or Baylor could lose to Texas (alright probably not that one). In any case, there are four at-large bids remaining, one of which will be claimed by the highest ranked non-Power 5 team (most likely the winner of Houston vs. Temple).
So Ben, looking at the nation’s next best teams, do you think Northwestern deserves one of those three remaining NY6 spots?
Ben Goren (@beng412): No. Which is a massive bummer for a 10-2 team with a win over a top 10 opponent (thanks Stanford!).
But when you look at the teams with similar resumes as Northwestern, like TCU, Baylor, Stanford, Florida State, Ohio State, and North Carolina, they all have something that Northwestern doesn’t have: dominating wins.
Northwestern has only one “step-on-your-opponent’s-neck” game, and it was against a 5-7 Minnesota that is very bad. They had plenty of opportunities to really assert themselves against lesser opponents. They had Illinois out on their feet at halftime, but decided to go into a shell on offense and coast to the finish line to a 24-14 victory. They played Purdue and couldn’t smoke them the way you’re supposed to.
The good-not-great wins that Northwestern has, like Penn State and Wisconsin, were nervy nail-biters.
Meanwhile Stanford pounded UCLA into the dirt, pasted Washington, and cruised over Jared Goff’s California team. North Carolina didn’t play a top 25 team, but wrecked a top 30 S&P+ team in NC State by hanging 35 in the first quarter. They beat Duke by 35, Miami by 38, and Illinois by 34. Florida State ruined Florida on the road, doubled up NC State, and darn near doubled up Louisville. We saw what Ohio State did to Michigan. TCU has just 2, maybe 2.5 good wins, but when one of those is a 40-10 drubbing against West Virginia AND you lost games to top 15 teams with your QB out, it’s hard to count it against them that much. Baylor ruins teams on the reg and gets Stidham back soon.
You only have 12 games to differentiate yourself from your opponents. And when resumes are similar, how often you can take a team behind the woodshed matters. NU didn’t do it. Their competitors did.
Jason: Honestly I could not care less how much a team wins by or if a given performance was dominant. And I cannot think of another sporting league anywhere in the world in which point differential matters in the slightest. I think resume – who you beat and who beat you – should be the sole determining factor in the CFP rankings. Dominant wins and “the eye test” only make the selection process more murky. The CFP committee will surely cite the eye test, point differential and apparently even “body clocks” when releasing their rankings anyway. That’s the way it is.
That does not mean Northwestern has not earned one of those final three NY6 spots. Ohio State and Notre Dame have earned two of those three spots in my mind. The Buckeyes have played a really unimpressive slate of games this year, but their sole loss is to the No. 5 team in the country (according to the AP media poll). Notre Dame has a similar argument. The only losses for the Irish this year came on the road against the No. 1 and No. 7 teams in the country, and they have three top 25 wins.
So there is one spot left. And Northwestern is in competition for it with UNC, Florida State, Michigan, Oregon, Ole Miss and Baylor or TCU (whichever one doesn’t go to the Sugar Bowl). The Ducks, Rebels and Wolverines can all be sliced from the conversation because each has three losses. Plus Michigan only has one top 25 victory, and Oregon and Ole Miss each lost to multiple teams outside the top 20.
If North Carolina loses to Clemson, you are left with five two-loss squads: UNC, FSU, NU and Baylor/TCU. Two of those teams lost to 3-9 squads this season and only one of them has a single top 25 win. Florida State and North Carolina should be eliminated. Baylor and TCU both played extremely soft non-conference schedules, on top of their matchups with the bottom four Big 12 teams that averaged a 3-9 record this year. The Bears and Horned Frogs only lost to top 15 teams, but the same almost holds true for Northwestern, who lost on the road to No. 19 Michigan. And among all five of these teams, only one can boast multiple top 25 victories. That’s Northwestern. The ‘Cats should be in.
Ben: Are we sure that Northwestern has the best losses? Is losing a tight game in slop weather with a 3rd string QB (what up, Baylor) the same as getting crunched by 30 on your home field, like NU vs Iowa? Or being knocked out of a game after one play, like NU vs Michigan?
Northwestern had 3 chances against elite competition to prove that it is an elite team. One they passed. In the other two they got absolutely shredded. If Northwestern kept the Iowa or Michigan game close, you wouldn’t be hearing any of the asinine “body clock” argument about Stanford coming east to play the Wildcats. People look at Northwestern and see them as a cut below that “elite” level because in games against teams of that level, they’re not only 1-2, they were outscored by 58.
That matters. That has to matter. There is a difference between a team imposing their will and a team that scrapes by. And if you’re just going to go by the wins and losses, as Inside NU’s Henry Bushnell likes to say, you only are using 12 data points. And that’s doing yourself a disservice. A more holistic selection process is important, and that’s why you need to think about how the teams actually played, not just whether they won or lost.
Jason: If the Bears go out on Sunday and lose to the Packers by 70, does that count differently than any other loss? No. They simply went 0-1 that week. Northwestern is not playing to win by 40 points or 30 points or even 20 points. We saw that against Illinois. Once they were up two scores, the ‘Cats packed it in. And the committee should not hold that against them. As Herm Edwards said, you play to win the game! At the end of the day, leaving the field with a W is all that matters.
Stats are great. They can tell you how efficient an offense or defense is or how certain players perform in given situations. They can even tell you how well a certain team has played during the entire season. I love using stats for analysis. That doesn’t mean they should be used to choose playoff teams or who goes to what bowl. A lot of analysts think the Carolina Panthers are not the best team in the NFL or even that close to the best (there’s a reason that they were underdogs at Dallas last week). But Cam Newton’s squad is 11-0 and if the playoffs started now, they’d dab into a bye week with the top seed in the NFC.
Returning to Northwestern’s chances at making the New Year’s Six…. if USC or North Carolina wins this weekend, forget about it. The ‘Cats won’t be selected for the Peach or Fiesta Bowls. That does not take anything away from a spectacular season, one which Pat Fitzgerald can definitely build off of. No matter where they go, the Wildcats will have a chance to set a new single-season win record around New Year’s Day.