The Coaches Poll doubled as a subjective media snapshot of Northwestern’s comparative standing among the nation’s top-25 teams. That’s the conclusion I reached after seeing the 2013 preseason AP Poll Saturday, which ranked the Wildcats 22nd, the same spot it landed in the Coaches Poll released two weeks ago.
I mentioned this when the preseason Coaches Poll was released, but I’ll reiterate the point: this is a fair ranking. Northwestern finished the season ranked 16th in the coaches poll, fresh off an impressive four-of-five winning stretch and a cool 14-point win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats beat some good teams last season, lost to some other good ones, but all in all finished 2012 with a ranking that appropriately gauged its relative competitive merits amongst the rest of the nation’s top 25. Northwestern had all kinds of momentum heading into the offseason, and voters pegged it in the mid-teens as a result.
It still has momentum – both because of recruiting and the high percentage of starters it returns – but pollsters dropped the Wildcats down a few notches for two reasons: 1) their schedule is brutal and 2) there is still some cognitive dissonance, however miscast, with ranking Northwestern, long a Big Ten doormat, among the nation’s elite. Call it historical bias, or mental inertia. Whatever the resistance is, it exists. Northwestern doesn’t just need to win games to ascend the polls, it needs to win the mental battle of convincing voters (particularly the older demographic) to eliminate the negative perception built over long recent stretches of Big Ten irrelevance and bowl ineligibility.
If the Wildcats win enough games, voters won’t have a choice. Their ranking will climb closer to their season-ending spot (Coaches: 16th, AP: 17th). For now, it’s difficult to argue this position. Northwestern is ranked right about where it should be.
The full AP Top 25 can be found here.