The College Football Playoff selection committee dealt an indirect blow to Northwestern's New Year's Six bowl hopes Tuesday night when it knocked the Wildcats down two spots in its Week 11 rankings.
These rankings themselves don't have any meaning, in that the committee doesn't consider past weeks' rankings when making their final decision on Dec. 6. If Northwestern beats Wisconsin this weekend in Madison, it could jump into the top 15. A win over Illinois — which, on the road against a team that advanced metrics like, would be a decent one — could push the Wildcats closer to the top 11.
But what this week's rankings do have is meaning. That Northwestern fell despite winning, and despite the team directly in front of the Wildcats the week before losing, shows that the committee factors in at least one of two things, and likely both, and it shows to what extent the committee does so. That's troubling for Northwestern.
The first of those two things is "game control," which is essentially a combination of the eye test and margin of victory. It's how impressive a team looks in achieving the result — win or loss — that it achieves. This is where the fact that many of Northwestern's wins have come in close games might matter, even if ever so slightly.
The second, and more important of those two things is strength of schedule. Northwestern's hopes of a New Year's Six Bowl rested heavily on its strength of schedule. NU's chance of cracking the top 11 was based on it having one of the best two-loss résumés in the country. It had two marquee non-conference wins, and its two losses were to top 15 teams.
But Week 11 brought misfortune for past NU opponents, and therefore for Northwestern. Stanford, which had rapidly ascended into the top 10, fell to previously unranked Oregon at home. Duke, whom NU also beat in September, lost its third game in a row, the most recent loss coming to Pittsburgh at home by 18 points. The previous week, the Blue Devils gave up 66 points to North Carolina in a blowout loss. ESPN's rankings page calculates that Northwestern's strength of schedule slid from 32nd nationally all the way to 47th in one week.
The unfortunate thing for Northwestern is that this is permanent damage, not temporary. This matters for Dec. 6 because Northwestern's strength of schedule is out of its control. The victory at Duke, which at one point was up there with the Stanford win, no longer looks that impressive. The Penn State win-- unless the Nittany Lions can upset Michigan or Michigan State-- really isn't all that impressive (Penn State's best win is at home against Indiana). That leaves Northwestern's New Year's Six bowl résumé hanging onto that Stanford win for dear life, and even that looks far weaker than it did a week ago.
What this means is that Northwestern is going to need a lot of help. The Wildcats need Oklahoma to beat TCU and Oklahoma State to beat Baylor. They need North Carolina to struggle (or lose) at Virginia Tech and NC State. They need LSU to lose at Ole Miss or to Texas A&M. They need Florida State to lose to Florida, Utah to lose to UCLA, and Stanford to lose to one of, but not both of, Cal and Notre Dame. Last but not least, Northwestern also needs Ohio State to beat Michigan State and Michigan, and might need Penn State to beat one of the Michigan schools remaining on its schedule as well. That's quite a bit of help to need.
The diminishing New Year's Six chances also present Northwestern fans with a dilemma. While NU needs Michigan State to lose for those slim chances to become reality, the Wildcats would be in better position for a non-New Year's Six bowl if the Spartans qualified for a New Year's Six bowl themselves. Especially if Northwestern loses to Wisconsin, Wildcat fans must bid farewell to the playoff dreams and root for Michigan State.
Week 12 will tell us a lot. If Northwestern beats Wisconsin convincingly, and if other results fall into place, the New Year's Six bowl conversation will be rekindled. But for now, an ascent into the top 11 between now and Dec. 6 seems like a longshot.