The wait is nearly over. At long last, after eight trying months, the 2013 college football season is upon us. In just 10 days, Northwestern will meet Cal in its primetime season opener. This last week and change can be excruciatingly slow, so to ease your anxiety, we’re rolling out 10 bold predictions, one each day, to lead you into August 31. Some of these may sound crazy (some of them won’t), and we probably won’t be looking back four months from now celebrating our foresight, but preseason sports predictions aren’t meant to be perfect, anyway, and erring on the bold side is much more fun than playing it safe. With that said, let’s begin: the real stuff, the actual football, will be here in no time.
No. 5: Northwestern will crack the top 10 in both major polls.
Moving into the top 10 of the polls is a pretty special thing. But for a few teams who regularly call the top 10 home, ascending into that rarefied air – there are only 10 teams, after all – is a big accomplishment. The Coaches Poll is only one part of the BCS formula and the AP Poll doesn’t factor in at all, removed in 2004 out of concerns over regional media bias. And by next season, when college football introduces its new playoff system and a selection committee replaces the controversial human-computer hybrid used by the BCS, neither major poll (nor the Harris poll) will officially influence which teams play in the most prestigious bowl games. We will channel our scrutiny toward committee members instead.
That doesn’t mean we’ll stop looking at the polls, and it definitely doesn’t mean jumping into the top 10 isn’t – again: different teams have different standards – a notable accomplishment for most programs. Northwestern will begin the 2013 season ranked 22nd in both major polls, five and six spots below (re: worse) where they finished in the final rankings of the 2012 AP and Coaches Polls, respectively. Those rankings appropriately weighted the accomplishments of a 10-win team, coming off its first bowl victory in more than 60 years, who didn’t lose a game in regulation after October 20.
But Northwestern did have three losses on its ledger, and none of those came against teams (Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan) that were anything close to national championship contenders. The Wildcats won 10 games against a manageable schedule. On the other hand, LSU won 10 games but had to face Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Alabama and Clemson along the way. The Tigers, predictably, finished higher (re: better) in both polls (AP: 14; Coaches: 12) than Northwestern, even after losing the last game they played – a one-point defeat to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl. The majority of LSU’s 2012 poll existence was spent in top-10 territory; the Wildcats never made it higher than their final ranking. But they did share this with the LSU: neither team finished in the top 10.
So what will it take for Northwestern to climb from its current low-20’s mantle into the top 10? How can it convince voters it deserves a spot amongst the elite of the elite? I don’t know the exact answer – polls are unpredictable, slippery, inexact entities. Maybe one writer begrudges a certain athletic department who refused him an interview, while another happens to have a close personal relationship with a team’s starting quarterback. Maybe a coach – wisely, might I add – votes his own team higher than it otherwise should be because he, like any rational fan or player or athletic department official, wants his team to play in a better bowl game and enjoy an exalted national perception. The potential conflicts of interest are legion. There is no scientific method to explain poll voting; pretending otherwise is silly.
Which brings me to a perfect recent case study, one that aligns perfectly with the topic of interest. Kansas State, like Northwestern, began last season ranked 22nd in the AP Poll (it was 21st in the coaches poll, but hey, just play along). The Wildcats broached the top 10 after a week four win at then-No. 6 Oklahoma. Winning in Norman is nothing to brush aside. Last season’s OU team wasn’t BCS-vintage – Texas A&M underscored that notion by hanging 41 on the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl – but at the relatively early juncture at which it happened, Kansas State beating Oklahoma felt like much more than an average Big 12 win. It was a victory only a few teams could realistically pull off, resonating on a national scale, and the Wildcats were aptly rewarded with a top-10 ranking (AP: 7; Coaches: 8).
Northwestern, it seems, will have a similar opportunity on its hands, two weeks later (week 6) than Kansas State’s big shot at OU last season, when Ohio State visits Evanston for NU’s prime time Big Ten opener. If Northwestern wins all of its non-conference games, and Ohio State follows suit (and handles business against Wisconsin at home one week prior), the Wildcats have an excellent chance of climbing into the top 10 of both major polls. Like Kansas State’s victory over Oklahoma, beating Ohio State, a presumed national championship contender, would force voters to stand up and take notice. They would see an undefeated team whose incremental rise from Big Ten obscurity, and resounding upset of the undisputed Big Ten frontrunner, had not only earned it a place in the Big Ten championship discussion, but officially and unconvincingly cemented its BCS aspirations into something real and legitimate – something more than the boilerplate national championship ambition most teams, rightfully or not, relay at conference media days.
And if an Ohio State win, on the heels of a 4-0 nonconference record, doesn’t garner the national recognition Kansas State beating Oklahoma last season did, then winning at Wisconsin one week later will leave no doubt. If Northwestern begins the season 5-0, it should be a top-10 team. Getting to 6-0, with impressive wins over 1) a team that finished undefeated last season and is considered, in many corners, the biggest threat to the SEC’s seven-year national championship streak; and 2) a back-to-back-to-back conference champion, will end the debate. The Wildcats would be a top-10 team, and their season resume would convincingly validate that ranking.