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College Football Playoff rankings debate: Comparing Northwestern's résumé with New Year's Six Bowl competitors

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How do the Wildcats stack up against similar teams on paper?

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

As we patiently await Tuesday's College Football Playoff rankings announcement, there has been a lot of talk of résumés and "looking at the tape" when it comes to Northwestern's chances of landing a NY6 bowl game. So we've decided to compile résumés for all the teams in the mix for the final New Year's Six Bowl spot(s)

Because that's all there is: One, or at the very most two, spots in question. As our Henry Bushnell broke down yesterday, here's what the scene looks like:

1. Clemson
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Michigan State
5. Iowa
6. Stanford (or USC)
7. Notre Dame [probably]
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

Before we get to the numbers, let's take a look at what the committee actually looks at when trying to differentiate between teams with similar records:

When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:

  • Championships won
  • Strength of schedule
  • Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
  • Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)

There's also the all-important eye test, and "game control," both of which the committee uses as well. But let's look at the bare bones. Who have you played? Where did you play them? How did you do?

Résumés

Glossary: AP Top 25ESPN FPI: Football Power Index | SOS: Strength of Schedule | SOR: Strength of Record | F/+S&P+ | CFP: Last week's College Football Playoff rankings; this week's rankings will be released Tuesday

NU2
Northwestern

Record: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 2-2  (Wins: 7, 25 Losses: 4, 19)
Opponent combined record: 81-63
Combined record of teams beaten: 60-60 | Combined record of teams lost to: 21-3
Wins over teams .500 or better: 5
Best Wins: No. 7 Stanford, at No. 25 Wisconsin
Bad Losses: None

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 47 SOR: 16 Game Control: 31 FPI: 53

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 51 F/+: 43 SOS: 27

Polls

AP: 13 Coaches: 13 CFP: 16

UM
Michigan

Record: 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 1-3 (Wins: 13 Losses: 5, 6, 21)
Opponents combined record: 80-64
Combined record of teams beaten: 49-59  Combined record of teams lost to: 31-5
Wins over teams .500 or better: 4
Best Wins: No. 13 Northwestern, BYU, at Penn State
Bad Losses:

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 51 SOR: 24 Game Control: 19 FPI: 19

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 6 F/+: 5 SOS: 57

Polls

AP: 19 Coaches: 19 CFP: 10

Northwestern Comparison

Michigan has the head-to-head advantage over Northwestern but not much else. Most importantly the Wolverines have three losses to Northwestern's two, which could be the difference at the end of the day. The Wolverines have looked better than NU, and the Michigan State loss was the flukiest play of the season away from being a win. But solely looking at wins and losses, Northwestern has the upper hand.

FSU
Florida State

Record: 10-2 (6-2 ACC)   Record vs. Top 25: 1-1 (Wins: 18 Losses: 1)
Opponent combined record: 77-66
Combined record of teams beaten: 62-57  Combined record of teams lost to: 15-9
Wins over teams .500 or better: 6
Best Wins: at No. 18 Florida, Miami
Bad Losses: at Georgia Tech

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 54 SOR: 17 Game Control: 8 FPI: 10

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 5 F/+: 13 SOS: 37

Polls

AP: 10 Coaches: 9 CFP: 13

Northwestern Comparison

On the surface, FSU has a solid résumé: Six wins over bowl eligible teams and a win at Florida. But the loss to Georgia Tech is an absolute killer. Losing to Clemson isn't a big deal, but Georgia Tech won three games this year, that's the worst loss of any team on this list. Florida State was ranked ahead of NU prior to this week, but it absolutely should not have been. After the dominant win at Florida, the Seminoles have a better argument though, and it's hard to see the committee dropping FSU below NU. Northwestern's hope is that the committee looks at the two teams from a fresh perspective, throws out the eye test and game control, a looks at the two résumés anew.

UNC
North Carolina

Record: 11-1 (8-0 ACC)   Record vs. AP Top 25: 0-0   (Wins: None Losses: None)
Opponent combined record: 67-75
Combined record of teams beaten: 64-66  Combined record of teams lost to: 3-9
Wins over teams .500 or better: 6
Best Wins: at Pittsburgh, Miami
Bad Losses: at South Carolina

FPI Ranks

SOS: 62 SOR: 11 Game Control: 7 FPI: 15

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 30 F/+: 22 SOS: 117

Polls

AP: 8 Coaches: 8 CFP: 14

Northwestern Comparison

Eleven wins is nice, but man, that strength of schedule... North Carolina has the worst collection of wins of any team on this list, and really it's not close. The Tar Heels' best win is against a Pittsburgh team that finished 8-4. And that loss to 3-9 South Carolina looks ugly. North Carolina will move up this week due to the fact that it won again, and it has certainly passed the eye test of the second half of the season. Fortunately for the committee's sake though, their decision will be made this weekend, when UNC plays Clemson in the ACC Championship. A win puts the Tar Heels in a New Year's Six Bowl, and maybe even in the Playoff conversation; a loss puts them out of both.

TCU
TCU

Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big 12) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 1-2 (Wins: 12 Losses: 3, 14)
Opponent combined record: 67-72
Combined record of teams beaten: 46-69 | Combined record of teams lost to: 21-3
Wins over teams .500 or better: 3
Best Wins: No. 12 Baylor
Bad Losses: None

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 40 SOR: 7 Game Control: 21 FPI: 7

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 19 F/+: 17 SOS: 83

Polls

AP: 11 Coaches: 11 CFP: 18

Baylor
Baylor

Record: 9-2 (6-2 Big 12) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 1-2 (Wins: 14 Losses: 3, 11)
Opponent combined record: 65-64
Combined record of teams beaten: 44-61 | Combined record of teams lost to: 21-3
Wins over teams .500 or better: 3
Best Wins: No. 14 Oklahoma State
Bad Losses: None

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 59 SOR: 13 Game Control: 3 FPI: 4

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 8 F/+: 7 SOS: 82

Polls

AP: 12  Coaches: 12 CFP: 7

OSU
Oklahoma State

Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big 12) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 1-2 (Wins: 11 Losses: 12, 3)
Opponent combined record: 73-66
Combined record of teams beaten: 53-63 | Combined record of teams lost to: 20-3
Wins over teams .500 or better: 5
Best Wins: No. 11 TCU
Bad Losses: None

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 41 SOR: 6 Game Control: 35 FPI: 17

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 25 F/+: 21 SOS: 56

Polls

AP: 14 Coaches: 14 CFP: 11

Northwestern Comparisons

Speaking of strength of schedule, the three Big 12 teams in contention aren't North Carolina, but they're only one step up from the bottom of the barrel. Each of these three teams only has one good win, and it's come against another one of the three. All three also lost to Oklahoma. Outside of that, though, they've feasted on mediocre teams.

Northwestern has stronger résumé than all three of these teams, but TCU is coming off of a win and Baylor will have a chance to blowout Texas next week. The key thing to not is that one of these three teams gets an automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl because of its contract with the Big 12, so two of these three would have to be ranked ahead of NU for the Big 12 to hurt NU's chances. That seems unlikely.

Stan
Stanford

Record: 10-2 (8-1 Pac-12) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 2-2 (Wins: 9, 24 Losses: 13, 15)
Opponent combined record: 78-67
Combined record of teams beaten: 59-62 | Combined record of teams lost to: 19-5
Wins over teams .500 or better: 8
Best Wins: No. 9 Notre Dame, at No. 24 USC, UCLA, at Washington State
Bad Losses: None

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 18 SOR: 12 Game Control: 15 FPI: 11

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 15 F/+: 9 SOS: 46

Polls

AP: 7 Coaches: 7  CFP: 9

Northwestern Comparison

Here we have the team that many people, including Pat Fitzgerald, think should be ranked below Northwestern, and while NU has the head-to-head advantage, Stanford still has the better résumé. Stanford has more wins against bowl eligible teams than any other team on this list, and is also a division champ. The Cardinal have also clobbered some teams — teams of similar caliber to the ones Northwestern is squeaking by. Of course none of this matters if Stanford wins the Pac-12, since they'll get an automatic bid to the Rose bowl, or make the playoff.

Actually, the question is whether a three-loss Stanford, with a loss to USC in the Pac-12 Championship, would remain ahead of Northwestern. That would probably come down to how close Saturday's game is.

ND
Notre Dame

Record: 10-2 | Record vs. AP Top 25: 3-2 (Wins: 20, 22, 24 Losses: 7, 1)
Opponent combined record: 77-65
Combined record of teams beaten: 55-63 | Combined record of teams lost to: 22-2
Wins over teams .500 or better: 4
Best Wins: No. 22 Navy, No. 20 Temple, No. 24 USC, at Pittsburgh
Bad Losses: None

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 17 SOR: 8 Game Control: 10 FPI: 9

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 9 F/+: 4 SOS: 14

Polls

AP: 9 Coaches: 10  CFP: 6

Northwestern Comparison

Notre Dame has a peculiar resume: No incredible wins, but Navy, USC and Temple are solid, and also two great losses. The fact that Notre Dame lost to two potentially top-five teams by two points each, combined with the Fighting Irish's very high strength of schedule rating, put them pretty clearly ahead of Northwestern, even if they don't have a top end win.

UF
Florida

Record: 10-2 (7-1 SEC) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 1-2 (Wins: 16 Losses: 10, 23)
Opponent combined record: 72-70
Combined record of teams Beaten: 54-65 Combined record of teams lost to: 18-5
Wins over teams .500 or better: 3
Best Wins: No. 16 Ole Miss, Georgia
Bad Losses: None

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 29 SOR: 10 Game Control: 17 FPI: 5

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 16 F/+: 12 SOS: 38

Polls

AP: 18 Coaches: 15 CFP: 12

Ole Miss
Ole Miss

Record: 9-3 (6-2) | Record vs. AP Top 25: 2-1 (Wins: 2, 23 Losses: 18)
Opponents Combined Record: 84-57
Combined record of teams beaten: 58-47 | Combined record of teams lost to: 26-10
Wins over teams .500 or better: 6
Best Wins: at No. 2 Alabama, No. 23 LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M
Bad Losses: at Memphis, Arkansas

ESPN FPI Ranks

SOS: 25 SOR: 14 Game Control: 6 FPI: 5

Football Outsiders Ranks

S&P+: 7 F/+: 11 SOS: 49th

Polls

AP: 16 Coaches: 17 CFP: 18

Northwestern Comparison

These two teams need to be lumped together because one of them will be going to the Sugar bowl. Based on résumé alone it should be Ole Miss, and the eye test probably doesn't dispute that either. Florida does have the head to head, but Ole Miss has finished strong, has the best win of anybody in the nation, and probably the best three-loss résumé. Again, head-to-head matters, but only so much.

Northwestern has a better résumé than Florida though, so the SEC shouldn't damage NU's New Year's Six hopes.

Conclusions

So let's say Notre Dame isn't a lock, and two spots are open in the New Year's Six bowls. Let's also say TCU is the second-highest ranked Big 12 team (after Oklahoma). And let's say:

  • Alabama beats Florida
  • Clemson beats North Carolina
  • Stanford beats USC

Northwestern would then have to finish in the top two of the following group of teams:

Notre Dame
Florida State
Michigan
Baylor
Florida
North Carolina

Solely based on résumé, the Wildcats might slot in at No. 2 on that list, behind Notre Dame and in front of Florida State. The issues is that the committee usually considers more than just wins and losses though, and that might put the Seminoles, even with an inferior résumé on paper, ahead of the Wildcats. The bottom line is that Northwestern might have one of the 10 best résumés in the country, but it also loses out on the eye test to all the teams on the above list, maybe excluding Florida.