Here on this very site is a bold prediction that our Wildcats will crack the top 25 this year. I mean, sure, that's bold, in the same sense that Chex Mix Bold Party Blend is bold. That is, very salty and agreeable to the palate.
But enough with the pessimism, already. This site can be a real downer sometimes. It's pretty clear to anybody who's been paying attention that Northwestern is on the rise. We've got one of the hottest young coaches in college football, and we've won three Big Ten titles since 1995! We also won a New Years' Day bowl game in 2013. How many teams can say that? Only five others, that's how many. Rarefied company.
So, I think it's a pretty foregone conclusion that we make the national championship game this year. Now, I'm not saying that we're going to get there 14-0 as an undefeated No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. I recognize that there's very well a chance we could be one of those one-loss teams at the end of the season hoping that their resume and RPI (or whatever criteria they're using) get them into the playoff. But seeing as how I've projected that all of NU's opponents will have at most one loss each (to us, of course), I think our strength of schedule will give us the edge.
So then the question becomes, who do we want to play in the national championship game? A lot of factors at play here: you want there to be hype and name recognition, you want a good matchup, you want them to have a good fanbase so that we don't have to sell out Cowboys Stadium by ourselves, and most importantly, you want gracious losers. I've got a few teams in mind that I'd love to see NU play. In no particular order:
University of Southern California
USC, or Southern Cal, as they prefer not to be called, would be a premier opponent, sure to draw a lot of viewers to ESPN. For Northwestern fans, this would be a chance for us to get revenge on the Trojans for beating us in the 1996 Rose Bowl. You know, the one where Keyshawn Johnson ran wild on us, only for the NCAA to later figure out that he was an ineligible player, stripping USC of the win. It is very likely that USC will field another ineligible player, so let's just go ahead and beat them on the field to make the matter moot.
Every few years, when Stanford is 7-0 and ranked in the top 5 and other nerd schools like Northwestern and Duke are a respectable 5-2, the national media starts going crazy with stories about how academics are back in vogue in football and that this is some kind of sea change in college athletics. So, let's really crank up the narrative to 11 by playing Stanford in the national championship and make columnists around the country recycle all of the nerd jokes they used last year. I mean, think of all the calculus flying back and forth in the game.
Let's face it, we have a really stupid rivalry with Illinois. It's such an unremarkable rivalry that we had to move a game to Wrigley Field to get people to pay attention. And it was going to be such a boring matchup that we purposely kept Dan Persa off the field, so that the game would be competitive. This rivalry is never going to take a step forward unless there are real stakes on the line, and I don't mean a hat. Of course, for a national championship matchup to happen, Illinois will have to do its part and run the table through its schedule. I know I predicted that all of NU's opponents would finish with just one loss, but Illinois is the one team I have the least confidence can accomplish that. Because Beckman.
They're ranked 128th, dead last in Paul Myerberg's preseason rankings. So, this would basically guarantee a national championship for Northwestern. There's no way we'd lose to a team ranked last in the FBS, because Fitz's teams never play down to the level of their competition. Granted, a 13-0 or 12-1 UMass team heading into the championship game would make the Minutemen the most dangerous 128th-ranked team ever, so Fitz better be prepared. Unfortunately, due to UMass' minuscule fanbase, ESPN would likely exercise its option to relegate the game to the BTN, so most of the nation would miss our glorious win.
An SEC team, any SEC team
The SEC may be the premier conference in the country when it comes to football, but clearly they haven't scheduled Northwestern enough. In the past four years, NU has gone 3-0 against two of the SEC's perennial powerhouses in Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Imagine the damage NU would do against Alabama. Hopefully we won't have to imagine any more, with a matchup in the national championship game. It'll be up to us to defend the honor of the Big Ten, but I know Fitz will be up to the task. He's no Jim Tressel.
This is the school NU fans like to pretend doesn't exist. They complain about the breathless coverage the Fighting Irish get in the Trib and Sun-Times for going 7-5 against a patsy schedule. Fitz, who was famously unwanted by Notre Dame as a player, won't even call the university by name. But then the minute NU schedules a series against them, the NU fanbase goes bonkers. Get a grip, people. Maybe people will finally get over their inferiority complex to Notre Dame if we beat them twice in a year-- once in the regular season and then again in the national championship game. It will be annoying having to hear their damn fight song for two games, though.
So those are my top choices of opponent. But really, any team will do. I don't want to sound too picky or anything. A national championship a nice way to open up 2015, before we turn our attention full-time to projecting our NCAA Tournament seed. (I know it's far too premature, but is it better to be a No. 1 seed playing close to home, or would a Chris Collins-coached team do better as a lower seed on the road, away from the fishbowl pressure of the Chicago media?)