New Lake the Posts contributor Kevin Vedder weighed in on a topic that has been in the air all offseason: Northwestern's poor record while ranked. It is well known that Pat Fitzgerald's teams have gone 2-8 when ranked in either the Coaches or the AP poll, and the poor record is frequently attributed to difficulty living up to expectations. Vedder, however, proposes some other factors: bad luck and scheduling. I think that this angle is worth pursuing.
First, let's look at the games. There are three seasons to consider:
In 2012, Northwestern first received a ranking after a 5-0 start, the week before playing Penn State, a game NU lost 39-28. Northwestern made it back into the Coaches' Poll at 7-2, the week before playing Michigan, a 38-31 OT loss. Finally, Northwestern got back into the polls in time for bowl season and beat Mississippi State 34-20.
In 2010, Northwestern hit #25 in the Coaches' Poll twice: after a 5-0 start, NU lost to Purdue, 20-17, while ranked #25. After beating Iowa (and losing Dan Persa) to move to 7-3, Northwestern was ranked again when Illinois won, 48-27, at Wrigley.
2008 saw Northwestern play 5 games while ranked in one of the polls. After a 5-0 start, Northwestern was ranked #22 in the Coaches' Poll and lost to Michigan State, 37-20. Two weeks later, 6-1 NU lost to Indiana, 20-17, while ranked #24. Two weeks after that, 8-2 (Edit: 7-2) Northwestern was once again ranked and once again lost, this time losing 45-10 to Ohio State. Northwestern finished the year by beating Illinois, 27-10, and losing to Missouri, 30-23, both while bearing a number before the name.
Let's look at where Northwestern's opponents in those games ranked in F/+, both nationally and compared to the rest of Northwestern's schedule.
Michigan: 20 (3)
Penn State: 25 (4)
Mississippi State: 62 (7)
Northwestern finished the year 29th in F/+
Illinois: 32 (4)
Purdue: 88 (9)
Northwestern finished the year 73rd in F/+ (and ahead of 6 of NU's FBS opponents; the schedule was just a bit soft)
Ohio State: 9 (1)
Missouri: 14 (3)
Michigan State: 39 (4)
Illinois: 43 (5)
Indiana: 96 (12)
Northwestern finished the year 42nd
Altogether, the higher ranked team in F/+ won 8 of these 10 games; the only exceptions were Purdue in 2010 (88 over 73) and Indiana in 2008 (96 over 42). The Purdue game, while an upset according to F/+, was well within the realm of normal variation. The Indiana upset was truly shocking; still, NU has proven able to drop games to bad opponents (I'm looking at you, 2011 Army) without the weight of expectations on their shoulders.
There is another issue worth noting: in each of these three seasons, Northwestern first entered the rankings after a 5-0 start. Weak schedules have helped with those starts. The best example of this is 2010: Northwestern's five wins to start that season were over Minnesota (87th in F/+), Central Michigan (94), Vanderbilt (101), Rice (104), and FCS Illinois State. The 2008 team had beaten Iowa (12th), and the 2012 team had a decent win over Syracuse (37), but the overall SOS of those early season streaks was extremely low.
The general trend, then, seems to be: Northwestern opens with a winning streak against bad opponents, eventually receiving a ranking. Northwestern then loses, generally to a decent team, dropping out of the polls. If the Cats win again, they may climb back into the rankings, though frequently this once again comes the week before a strong opponent. This means Northwestern tends to play better opponents while ranked than unranked, resulting in a worse record. I would expect not only Northwestern but also other marginal top-25 teams to show a similar pattern, tending to enter the polls after rolling off wins against weak competition and then drop out quickly upon hitting meatier parts of their schedule.
I propose, then, that Pat Fitzgerald's teams have not struggled to deal with expectations (at least as measured by poll rankings). Rather, they have tended to become ranked prior to facing good opponents and have, predictably, been less likely to beat good opponents than bad. This season is a great opportunity for Northwestern to change this; NU should be the better team for, at the least, the first four games of the season and will remain ranked so long as those games go into the W column. Instead of becoming ranked just before playing a good opponent, Northwestern should be able to rattle of some ranked wins over weaker competition.
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