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InsideNU Debate: Where should Northwestern be ranked?

Preseason polls are pretty useless. They tell you how good people think teams are; not how good they actually, um, are. You need real games for that. But as is true with pretty much any ranking of a sports-related topic on the Internet, people spend a lot of time reading preseason polls. Staring at them. Arguing about them, getting defensive, turning comment sections into vicious ego wars, spewing bitter recriminations on Twitter. The funniest part about this? Once the season starts, the polls invariably change, and even then, people are quick to cry foul when a temporary subjective ranking of team quality doesn’t reflect the desired placement of their favorite team. It’s an endless cycle.

It’s poll season in college football, and the voters seem to think Northwestern deserves a spot in the top-25. They finished the season riding a cathartic surge of momentum, winning a bowl game for the first time in over 60 years, tearing a monkey to shreads after the fact, and enter 2013 with expectations adjusted accordingly. You’ve no doubt peeked around at a raft of different “power rankings” and college football previews and, of course, the two official polls (AP and Coaches) everyone pays way too much attention to every week. It’s only the preseason, and these rankings are prone to wild fluctuations – there’s typically one head-scratching outlier in both polls each week – but since everybody seems so concerned about where their teams stack up before ever playing their first games, we’ll take our best shot at rationalizing what we think the Wildcats’ preseason ranking should be. Agree? Disagree? Let us know.

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The best place to start analyzing Northwestern’s preseason ranking, naturally, is the end of last season, where the Wildcats closed without losing a game in regulation between October 20 and the New Year’s Day Gator Bowl – an impressive four-of-five winning stretch that included a close victory at Michigan State, a 36-point clobbering of Illinois and a dominating Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State.

The final coaches poll of 2012 had Northwestern ranked 16th. That felt just about right at the time: Northwestern beat every non-conference and conference opponent it should have, came excruciatingly close to playing in its first Big Ten championship game and dropped close games to some of the Big Ten’s better teams (Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State). Then, they took down a plainly mediocre SEC opponent, which probably looked better for sheer conference affiliation than anything football-related; league rep aside, Mississippi State simply wasn’t very good last season.

Even if the optics of the Gator Bowl win were skewed by national perceptions of blanket SEC dominance – Northwestern didn’t just win a bowl game, it won a bowl game against an SEC TEAM – the Wildcats proved during the regular season, even in defeat, that they were one of the best teams in their own conference.

Using that baseline, it’s easy to understand why they should be ranked in the top-25 heading into 2013. Most of last season’s team returns intact, and some of the recruiting success coach Pat Fitzgerald has leveraged out of his program’s recent rise will offer help around the margins. For the first time in Fitzgerald’s tenure, people are putting Northwestern and Big Ten champion in the same sentence enough to know it’s not some sort of condescending joke. The plucky, academically-limited, dispassionately-supported Wildcats are going to be good, and fans and media won’t be surprised if/when they are. This is a strange position for Northwestern to be in (at least in regards to their recent history).

Over the seven-month period bridging the New Year’s Day bowl win and the preseason, people had the therapeutic post-bowl downtime to view Northwestern’s 2012 accomplishments from afar. Here’s what I think they saw: a good team with some solid wins, but nothing so shocking as to believe the Wildcats can start stacking 10-win seasons on the regular. Their season was good, and a promising step forward, but not great.

The healthy skepticism that comes whenever a recently middling team rises up into double-digit win territory, coupled with Northwestern’s more difficult schedule – which features the most brutal Leaders crossover draw imaginable (Ohio State and at Wisconsin) – gave voters all the evidence and logical impetus they needed to knock the Wildcats down a few spots in the rankings. Their ranking was never going to remain at its lofty post-Gator Bowl heights. No. 16 was a snapshot of Northwestern’s post-Bowl state, which almost anyone (and especially Mississippi State) can attest, was top-16 quality. The nexus of opinion – not just on Northwestern, but most of the rest of the top 25 – has shifted since.

Months later, taking a more difficult schedule and minor roster turnover into account, where do the Wildcats stand now?

Somewhere in the top-15 might be a little ambitious, and it’s true – the schedule is much, much harder. I’ve written plenty of times before, and said it just as often this offseason: I think the Wildcats can be better than last season. I just don’t know whether I believe the record will reflect their improvement, or whether a more rigorous schedule will leave the Wildcats in the 7-8-win range. These are the sorts of internal debates pollsters have (or should be having) in the preseason, and it’s the same one I’m currently struggling with.

I can’t really fault the general sentiment about the Wildcats’ ranking needing a sizable, but fair, downward revision before a 2013 season featuring a number of challenging home and road opponents. For that reason, I’ll resist my anti-establishment inclinations, ride with the status quo and say the Wildcats deserve a No. 22 preseason ranking, the same spot they currently inhabit in the AP and Coaches Polls, respectively.

- Chris Johnson

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Pat Fitzgerald doesn't like preseason polls and he'll take any opportunity to tell you that. That's the obligation of any college football coach, it seems — "We don't care about predictions, we're gonna control what we can control, etc." The thing is, preseason rankings do matter, and Fitzgerald acknowledged that. They matter to the perception of the program and they play a big role in deciding which teams will even have a shot to play for the national title. My point — and Fitzgerald's point — is that preseason rankings shouldn't matter. You know why? Because I have absolutely no idea where Northwestern should be ranked, and neither does anyone else.

When Lake The Posts asked me where I would rank Northwestern, I answered that it sure be somewhere between 17th and 22nd. When pressed for a specific number, I averaged and rounded to an even 20. But I must come clean here: I don't have a crystal ball and my choice of 20 may or may not be arbitrary like every other "expert prediction."

I don't mind predictions. They may be irrelevant, but they're fun and unlike preseason rankings, you can at least put some context with your predictions. For example, it's easier to compare conference teams and put out a list of bowl projections than it is to rank every team in the country.

So let me try to rationalize ranking NU 20th...

The Wildcats are ranked 22nd in the preseason AP poll. TCU is 20th and UCLA is 21st. The Horned Frogs return a senior-laden team, but have lost some depth in preseason camp. Have they lost enough to start the year behind NU? Or is the NU defense better than advertised — it very well may be — and worthy of being ranked over the Horned Frogs, regardless? How about UCLA, which is  a popular sleeper pick like NU?

NU could very well be ranked ahead of No. 17 Michigan — I chose the Wildcats to finish ahead of the Wolverines in that same survey. The same could be said for Nebraska, which has a suspect defense. What about No. 19 Boise State? The Broncos struggled last season, and while they have more experience this year, they seem to always be ranked in the preseason now because of their status as savior of the non-BCS schools.

What about the teams below NU? No. 23 Wisconsin is breaking in a new coach, but the Badgers have overachieved recently. No. 24 USC has as much talent as anyone in the country, and you'd think that talent will work out eventually, right? No. 25 Oregon State could even surprise, despite being in the same division as powers Oregon and Stanford.

So why should NU be ranked 20th? "I just know" seems to be an acceptable answer these days, so I'll go with that.