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Does Northwestern Deserve a Top-25 Ranking?

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The release of the week latest AP Poll left some Northwestern fans feeling understandably bitter. After all, NU is college football’s only team to have beaten three FBS opponents. More importantly, it’s two most recent wins – over a rising Vanderbilt team and the heretofore high-scoring Boston College Eagles – came by way of defensive prowess, not the typical outscore-your-opponent NU game plan. That versatility, it would seem, should have proved voters that these Wildcats aren’t the same defensively-bereft bunch of recent years, that there is in fact something markedly different about this year’s squad on that side of the ball.

Based on the season’s results, it’s hard to make a reasonable argument the Wildcats doesn’t deserve a spot in the AP Poll. But voters do not use that simple criterion to make their decisions. In fact there is no real criteria; Polls are a fuzzy function of game results, programs’ reputation, recent history, coaching, conference affiliation, national appeal, playing style and a slew of other factors that don’t reflect actual performance. Which is why these subjective ranking systems, lo and behold, will cease to matter in the college football postseason determination formula beginning in 2014, when a selection committee will be instituted to determine the sport’s playoff participants.

But for NU, what matters is the here and now, and the lack of respect their undefeated start has generated on a national level. There are plenty of fans wringing their hands over the Wildcats’ non-inclusion in this week’s poll. I have my own opinion on this matter, and I’ll reveal that a little later, but I thought I’d break down the resume’s of the final five teams in the latest poll (No. 21-25) and compare them to the Wildcats’. It’s the best way to analyze whether or not they merit consideration, because if and when NU makes the leap – it could happen as early as this week, particularly if they take care of business against South Dakota – voters will need to pencil them in over fringe top-25 teams, the squads I’ll analyze below.

(21) Michigan State

Record: 2-1

Wins: (24)Boise State (17-13), at Central Michigan (41-7)

Losses: (11)Notre Dame (20-3)

Previous: 10

A trendy preseason pick to win the Big Ten, Michigan State has underwhelmed in nonconference play, first in its season-opening win against Boise State, then in a primetime clash with Notre Dame. The defense has played as advertised, stocked to the gills with future NFL talents, all of them flying around the field and shutting down offenses. Offensively, the questions entering this season about replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins and a batch of explosive receivers have limited the Spartans more than most anticipated. Despite a 41-point effort in week two against Central Michigan, new quarterback Andrew Maxwell, star tailback Le’Veon Bell and the revamped receiving corps have struggled to sustain drives and committed several costly turnovers. The stagnant offense, not to mention the Irish imposing their own brand of physical football on a Spartans team whose calling card is physical football (at home no less), largely explains Michigan State’s 11-spot drop.

(22) Arizona

Record: 3-0

Wins: Toledo (24-17), Oklahoma State (59-38), South Carolina State (56-0)

Previous: 24 

This is a textbook case of flair and intrigue taking precedent over on-field substance. Arizona installed former Michigan and West Virginia coach and spread-offense guru Rich Rodriguez as its latest head coach this offseason in the hopes of creating some national buzz at a basketball-centric school. With the inherent disadvantages of playing most of its games far later than most east coast viewers are willing to entertain, to say nothing of the school’s history as a basketball powerhouse, Rodriguez has created quite a stir in Phoenix. His traditionally potent offense looked impressive in a 59-point takedown of Oklahoma State, and it hung 56 points on FCS foe South Carolina State. But the Wildcats could only muster 24 points against Toledo, and they’re yet to come up against a formidable defense. Rich Rod’s spread is making headlines, sure, but its fair to question whether this ranking has more to do with a heightened general interest level (that offense is without doubt a thrill to watch) than Arizona’s results on the field.

(23)Mississippi State

Record: 3-0

Wins: Jackson State (56-9), Auburn (28-10), @ Troy (30-24)

Previous: NR

Unlike some other teams on this list, Mississippi State’s case hinges on a win over a quality opponent. No, Auburn will not challenge for an SEC title this season, but it has the baseline talent level to compete in the West Division and, at the very least, qualify for the postseason. With the minor exception of last weekend’s closer-than-expected seven-point win at Troy, the Bulldogs have dominated opponents with physical defense and excellent quarterback play from junior Tyler Russell. The Auburn win stands as the strongest chip on the bulldogs resume, but it could lose value if the Tigers continue to struggle against weaker opponents. That said, Missippi State may continue to rise for the next four weeks, and could enter its Oct. 27 visit to Tuscaloosa with an undefeated record. A soft schedule could see the Bulldogs crack the top 15, particularly if they can knock off Tennessee at home in three weeks. All in all, this week’s ranking feels just right. Mississippi State is a good team, but not one capable of contending with West division powerhouses LSU and Alabama.

(24) Boise State

Record: 1-1

Wins: Miami of Ohio (39-12)

Losses: (21)Michigan State (17-13)

After Boise State’s four-point loss at Michigan State, Broncos coach Chris Petersen reflected on his team’s efforts: “We had chances and there’s no moral victories in any of this stuff.” Whatever your feeling on his comments, the voters were certainly impressed by Boise’s close loss at Spartan Stadium. But as we saw last weekend, Michigan state is very much mortal, and perhaps the only reason Boise was able to challenge the Spartans was their litany of costly turnovers. Michigan State dominated the Broncos, thanks in large part to a 44-carry, 210-yd game from Bell. Even if the final score didn’t reflect as much, it’s clear that Michigan State held a decided physical advantage over the Broncos. Petersen is 6-0 in season openers, and he’s knocked off several BCS powers in these nationally-televised opening-week games, so it was hardly a surprise his team kept things interesting late into the fourth quarter. But the larger takeaway from that game was that Boise, who returns just six starters, is not the powerhouse of recent years. There is no Kellen Moore, no Titus Young, no Doug Martin. This is a good Non-AQ team with a decent chance to win the Mountain West this season. But this ranking seems premature, if completely unwarranted.

(25) Nebraska

Record: 2-1

Wins: Southern Miss (49-20), Arkansas State (42-13)

Losses: @ (19)UCLA (36-30)

Previous: NR

It was easy to buy into Bo Pelini’s talented group after its week one win over Southern Miss, especially given the way Taylor Martinez (26-34, 354 yards, five touchdowns) zipped crisp passes to open receivers, a stark contrast from the ugly arm punts we’ve seen from T-Magic over the years. The offense was hitting on all cylinders, and the defense put the clamps on a Southern Miss squad that won 12 games last season. The Huskers met their equal in UCLA one week later. The Bruins, rejuvenated under new head coach Jim Mora, edged Nebraska in a shootout. It wasn’t a desirable result for a Nebraska team with designs on a Legends Division title, but the Bruins, who through three games have scored 122 points, and looked downright impressive doing so, have all the makings of a Pac-12 contender. So losing by six at UCLA doesn’t damage the Huskers’ chances of having a strong season. There are legitimate concerns on defense, namely the way Pelini has tried to replace star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and tackling machine Lavonte David, but the offense, led by Martinez, could be among the Big Ten’s best. This spot is well-deserved; I’d argue the Huskers were undersold in this week’s poll. The way UCLA continues to look the part, the way the Bruins are slowly, at long last, drawing attention from their cross-town rivals (USC), Nebraska need not be ashamed of a road loss at the Rose Bowl.

Northwestern

Record: 3-0

Wins: @ Syracuse (42-41), Vanderbilt (23-13, Boston College (22-13)

Previous: NR

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The problem with making this argument – that Northwestern deserves a spot in the top 25 – just three weeks into the season is the small sample size from which we must base our analysis. At this early juncture, it’s difficult to tell how one team’s win stacks up against another team’s. Three weeks of games is not enough time to draw conclusive distinctions about teams’ long-term outlooks. On the surface, NU’s three wins are legitimate. Like I wrote above: they are the only team to beat three BCS conference opponents. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself. But we can’t definitively gauge the merit of those wins until Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College begin their conference seasons. Once we get a good sense of how good those teams are, with respect to their league opponents, judging win value is fair game.

Sample size considerations aside, there are few teams with as strong a resume as NU’s. But as is the case with all subjective polls, the AP voting process does not limit its analysis to the season’s body of work. Voters, whose decisions are made available after the fact, are prone to outside influences. Given NU’s recent history – which reflects an exciting team, but one that can’t quite break into the national elite – its lack of preseason hype, and the uncertainty/poor record of its opponents, it’s not at all surprising it didn’t make the cut. The Wildcats’ run of success hasn’t really resonated nationally, at least not at this point in the season. My selection process would weigh in NU’s favor. If I’m ever granted the privilege of submitting an AP ballot, my decisions will derive almost entirely from what my eyes tell me: on-field performance. By that measure, NU deserves a vote. My opinion, such as it is, will not influence last week’s or any AP polls this season. But if NU continues to win games, the voters will stand up and take notice: the Wildcats will crack the top 25. It might even happen next week.