With Northwestern's regular season over, Wildcat fans can turn their attention to potential bowl destinations — and with a 10-2 season in the books, specifically to the College Football Playoff rankings. Northwestern, as has been discussed on Inside NU and elsewhere, is in the mix for New Year's Six bowl.
With the Wildcats' destiny now out of their own hands, Pat Fitzgerald gave his sales pitch to the College Football Playoff committee after Saturday's win over Illinois. He made some good points and some not so good ones.
But Northwestern's fate may end up being decided by some external factors outside of Fitzgerald's and NU's control. Because of bowl contracts and logistical issues, Northwestern is a longshot for a New Year's Six bowl, but it's still a possibility. Let's break down why.
First, a look at this past Tuesday's rankings, which obviously don't factor in any of this week's results:
Last week's rankings
Next, let's look at Week 13, which brought a mixed bag of results for Northwestern. Here are the relevant ones:
Week 13 results:
No. 19 TCU beat No. 7 Baylor 28-21 (2OT)
No. 18 Ole Miss beat No. 21 Mississippi State 38-27
No. 17 Oregon beat Oregon State 52-42
No. 16 Northwestern beat Illinois 24-14
No. 15 Navy lost to Houston 52-31
No. 14 North Carolina beat NC State 45-34
No. 13 Florida State beat No. 12 Florida 27-2
No. 11 Oklahoma State lost to No. 3 Oklahoma 58-23
No. 10 Michigan lost to No. 8 Ohio State 42-13
No. 9 Stanford beat No. 6 Notre Dame 38-36
Let's start with what we know:
- Navy's loss to Houston doesn't mean anything for Northwestern, because the highest ranked non-Power Five conference champion gets a spot in a New Year Six bowl regardless of ranking.
- Oregon got a win that is slightly worse than Northwestern's, and should remain behind NU. North Carolina got a win that is slight better than Northwestern's, and should remain ahead of NU.
- Ohio State will remain ahead of NU after destroying Michigan.
Now, things get a little more complicated:
- Notre Dame will finish ahead of Northwestern. The Fighting Irish have two losses, but they've come on the road by a combined four points to two of the top teams in the country. They also have four decent or pretty good wins.
- Stanford, despite the lazy head-to-head arguments of many (including Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald), probably has a better résumé than NU, and has looked far more impressive. The Cardinal will be ahead of NU on Tuesday.
- However, Stanford does still have to play the Pac-12 Championship game against unranked USC. But this is a perfect time to bring up another key point: The "Contract Bowls." The Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl have agreements with conferences to take that conference's champion, or its highest-ranked non-Playoff qualifier. For example, last year, No. 12 Georgia Tech, the ACC's highest ranked non-playoff team, went to the Orange Bowl over No. 11 Kansas State. So, because the Rose Bowl has a contract with the Pac-12, even if Stanford were to drop below Northwestern with a loss to USC, USC would claim one of the 12 New Year's Six spots, even if it were ranked behind NU. (More on rooting interests later, but that means the best Pac-12 title game result for NU is a Stanford blowout.)
- The Contract Bowl dilemma is what dooms Northwestern's New Year's Six hopes. It's an issue with the SEC and Big 12, which both have contracts with the Sugar Bowl (which, like the Rose Bowl, does not host a semifinal this year), and which both look set to send teams to the Playoff. From the SEC's official rules:
The Big Twelve rules are less clear, but seem to indicate the same thing. That means a second team from both the SEC and Big Twelve is guaranteed a New Year's Six bowl spot, even if that team finishes outside of the committee's top 11.
- Northwestern likely will move ahead of Florida — Florida's résumé is comparable to NU's, but the Gators lost to Florida State and have been underwhelming since losing starting quarterback Will Grier to suspension — and might remain ahead of Ole Miss, who has three losses, but also has far better wins (at Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, at Mississippi State). But the Sugar Bowl is contractually obligated to take one of the two SEC teams (likely Ole Miss).
- The Big Twelve sort of became a four-team conference as the season progressed. Three of those four teams all finished with two conference losses though, and no good non-conference wins. There is a real chance that Northwestern jumps ahead of both Baylor and Oklahoma State after their losses, and stays ahead of TCU after its win. However, the Sugar Bowl will also feature a Big Twelve team, and with Oklahoma pretty much clinching a spot in the Playoff after blowing out Oklahoma State, one of TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State will take another New Year's Six spot, even if that team is ranked behind Northwestern.
All of the above means there is really only one available spot. Eleven of the 12 spots will presumably be filled as follows (in no particular order):
New Year's Six bowl picture:
4. Michigan State
6. Stanford (or USC)
7. Notre Dame
8. Ohio State
9. Next highest ranked Big Twelve team (Baylor, Oklahoma State or TCU)
10. Next highest ranked SEC team (Ole Miss or Florida)
11. Highest ranked non-Power Five team
12. OPEN SPOT
That essentially leaves one available spot for, realistically, five teams: Northwestern, Florida State, North Carolina, Michigan, and a third Big Twelve team (likely either Baylor or TCU). Here's how those five teams compare:
- Heading into last week, Northwestern had a better résumé than Florida State. To any objective observer, that was pretty clear. But Florida State remained three sports ahead of NU, and after the Seminoles' throttling of Florida, it's tough to see the Wildcats surpassing FSU. Both teams are done for the season.
- Just as NU's win over Stanford doesn't put the Wildcats ahead of the Cardinal, Michigan's 38-0 demolition of Northwestern doesn't automatically put it higher in the rankings. Michigan has three losses, and over the second half of the season, since losing on that fluky final play to Michigan State, the Wolverines have been less than stellar. This comparison, on the surface, looks pretty close to 50-50. Michigan might have a slight edge but it could go either way.
- North Carolina would jump over all of the teams in this grouping if it beats No. 1 Clemson in the ACC title game. Clemson would remain in the top 11 (and perhaps in the top 4), and that would be that. If North Carolina loses though, it'll be a two-loss team with no standout win, and a loss to lowly South Carolina. With the Orange Bowl (the ACC's Contract Bowl) as one of the Playoff games in 2015, UNC would miss out with a loss to Clemson.
- It's difficult to gauge how the committee will evaluate the Big Twelve teams. Northwestern probably has a slight edge over both.
So all in all, Northwestern's chances are slim. The Wildcats picked a bad year to win 10 games, in that neither the Rose Bowl nor the Fiesta Bowl is hosting a Playoff game in 2015, and thus those bowls could be obligated to take teams ranked outside of the top 11. Florida State's win over Florida was also a critical blow, because with a Florida win, the Gators would have been the SEC team that heads to the Sugar Bowl, and Florida State would have fallen below Northwestern.
What the Wildcats need is a change of heart from the committee. In fact, they need the committee to do the opposite of what Pat Fitzgerald and others has been begging for. The case against Northwestern is that for much of the season, based on the "eye test," it hasn't looked like one of the 10 or 11 best teams in the country. That has likely factored into the committee's ranking of NU in past weeks.
Northwestern's case rests not with "the tape," as Fitzgerald has said, but with its résumé. On paper, from a pure wins, losses and strength of schedule standpoint, Northwestern is roughly on par with Florida State. We'll have in-depth résumé comparisons Monday, but if résumé is the only thing taken into consideration, Northwestern has a shot. Unfortunately, there are other factors, like the infamous "game control," and those are likely to doom the Wildcats.
So next weekend, root for a Stanford blowout win over USC. Root for a big Clemson win over North Carolina. But also realize that 10 wins and a trip to the Outback Bowl is a pretty darn good consolation prize.