I have a theory, and it's one I know is false: it's that there's one guy sitting in the Northwestern athletic department offices whose job it is to devise out-of-conference scheduling for football and men's basketball, and that guy really hates losing, but takes literally nothing else into consideration.
I hope this isn't true, because although winning is great and all - as is the fact that NU football will appear in a bowl and NU basketball has a high chnace of running the non-conference schedule - I feel like taking a look at why this works in one sport and doesn't in the other. Just in case schedule guy NU fan is a real person sitting in the Northwestern offices and doesn't get it yet.
I'm a junior in college. In my three years here, Northwestern has played 12 out-of-conference regular season football games. They are 11-1. Let's look at the final records of NU's opponents in those 12 games - I say final, because none of the four teams NU played this year will be appearing in postseason play, hence, final records.
Syracuse, W, 30-10 - final record, 3-9 (1-6 Big East)
Duke, W, 24-20 - final record, 4-8 (1-7 ACC)
Southern Illinois, W, 33-7 - I-AA, final record 9-3 (7-1 MVC)
Ohio, W, 16-8 - final record 4-8 (3-5 MAC)
Out-of-conference record - 4-0
Records of FBS opponents - 11-25
Towson, W, 47-14 - I-AA, final record, 2-9 (1-7 CAA)
Eastern Michigan, W, 27-24 - final record, 0-12 (0-8 MAC)
Syracuse, L, 37-34 - final record, 4-8 (1-6 Big East)
Miami (Ohio), W, 16-6 - final record, 1-11 (1-7 MAC)
Out-of-conference record: 3-1
Records of FBS opponents: 5-31
Vanderbilt, W, 23-21 - final record, 2-10, (1-7 SEC)
Illinois State, W, 37-3 - I-AA, final record 6-5 (4-4 MVC)
Rice, W, 30-13 - final record 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
Central Michigan, W, 29-25 - final record 3-9 (2-6 MAC)
Out of conference record: 4-0
Records of FBS opponents: 9-27.
Combined records of FBS opponents, 2008-2010: 25-83
Combined bowl records of FBS opponents: 0-0 (just to be clear about driving across my point)
Since 2008, Northwestern has gone 11-1 in out-of-conference play. The way they've done this is by exclusively playing below-average teams. You can't say that's not true, because every team NU has played in the past three years has either finished the season with a losing record or been a member of the FCS. (Not even any 6-6 opponents.) Not to mention that for the most part, with the possible exception of Vanderbilt in 2010, all these opponents are coming from leagues less competitive than the Big Ten was - making their failure to reach .500 all the more noteworthy. (If you'd like to debate whether the Big Ten was better than the SEC in 2010, go ahead, but my point is clear.)
However, I have no complaints with NU's scheduling. By definition, success in college football - besides head-to-head bragging rights - comes down to what bowl you play in, and what bowl you play in is in large part determined by how many wins your team has. In 2008, NU rode those four non-conference wins to a 9-3 record, which put them out of the reach of 7 win teams in bowl scheduling - although they did get jumped by 8-win Iowa. 2009 was a different story - the loss to Syracuse hurt, but above-average play down the stretch allowed NU to jump Wisconsin. But here we are in 2010: let's say that NU gave themselves as difficult a non-conference schedule as Illinois. The Illini played Missouri - then ranked No. 13, now headed to the Insight Bowl after a 10-2 season - Northern Illinois - who went 10-2 in the regular season, going 8-0 in conference - and Fresno State - who we made fun of them for losing to, but were a solid team in the WAC, finishing 8-4. (Remember, NU plays teams from these conferences with losing records.) They went 1-2 against those three teams, and, because they were probably a better team than NU, went 4-4 in conference, finishing 6-6 on the year.
Had NU played a non-conference slate with Missouri, Northern Illinois, and Fresno State, there is a high chance that they'd be sitting home this postseason. Two of those games are potential losses. NU is 7-5.
Because of good in-conference play, Illinois jumped Northwestern for the Texas Bowl. However, I won't complain: NU's four essentially guaranteed wins in non-conference play are why they're even headed to a bowl game and have a chance to end a 61-year bowl winless streak.
Similar story in basketball: NU is 23-3 in non-conference play since my freshman year. Two of those losses came to Butler, one when they were ranked, the other came to Stanford in 2008. Having beaten Creighton and Georgia Tech, Kenpom projects that NU will win every non-conference game, although that projection doesn't include the potential finals of the MSG holiday tournament against either Davidson (ranked considerably lower than NU by Kenpom) or St. John's (ranked 45th overall to NU's 53rd). They will play at most two teams from major conferences, and two road games, and NIU and Texas Pan-American.
Now, I'll be honest: all this does have some upside. It generates media attention and poll placement when NU has a very good record at the beginning of the year. (This also happens in football - note being ranked in the Coaches' poll after a 5-0 start.) If NU continues winning, they will likely earn a placement in a poll ranking as other currently undefeated teams - Cleveland State, Cincinnati, et. al. drop games and lose their hype while NU continues steamrolling the Mt. St. Mary's and St. Francis (NY)'s of the world. Last year, NU was able to get a top 25 ranking even with a loss to Butler - however, it lasted very little time as they lost their next two games after attaining a ranking. Hypothetically, this memory of when the team was previously successful could sway a few mind on Selection Sunday.
But unlike college football, where the biggest factor is bowl games and playing in a bowl game is highly dependent on wins - just wins, wins wins wins, next on the list being how good your fan support is rather than quality of wins - college basketball success is about the NCAA Tournament, where wins wins wins is NOT the biggest factor. It is a factor. But how good your team is is a bigger factor. NU will have a lot of wins this year, even if they don't perform well in the conference schedule. But the fact that NU plays virtually nobody of note in the non-conference - Kenpom has NU with the 322nd out of 345 in terms of non-conference strength of schedule, behind every major conference team besides Oregon State and Cincinnati - will hurt NU, no matter how well they perform against that competition. The RPI is a major factor in the final decision of who gets to play in the NCAA's, and it turns out a loss against a very good team from a good conference could boost your RPI more than a win against a bad team from a bad conference. Silly? Maybe. But that's the way it is.
Unlike NU's cupcake football scheduling, NU's out-of-conference scheduling does not set it up to achieve success in college basketball as well as it could, even if it does allow NU to rack up lots of wins. If NU wants to attend its first ever NCAA tournament this year, their awful non-conference scheduling forces them to do the bulk of their resume-building against an insanely difficult Big Ten conference - and at the end of the day, that failure to play anybody difficult before the Big Ten schedule kicks in could doom them.