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Early college football projections: S&P+ has Northwestern 5th in Big Ten West

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However, it actually projects the Wildcats to be better in 2016 than they were in 2015.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders recently released his initial S&P+ projections for the 2016 college football season. The mathematically calculated projections factor in past production (based on play-by-play data) of returning players, a program's recent history, and recruiting rankings from the years that will be relevant in 2016. Returning production is given the most weight, while recent history is given relatively little weight.

The initial projections for the 2016 season have Northwestern at No. 46 — up 10 spots from the Wildcats' 2015 finish at No. 56. The advanced metrics saw Northwestern as rather fortunate to win 10 games a year ago. This projection essentially expects Northwestern to improve on a per-play basis in 2016, but does not expect the Wildcats to equal the 10 wins of 2015. Northwestern could improve in 2016 and still win fewer games.

Here's a breakdown of where the Wildcats rank in terms of Connelly's three factors:

Rank Team Conference Recruiting impact Returning production Weighted 5-year Proj S&P+
46 Northwestern Big Ten 46 58 61 5.1

The biggest reason for expected improvement is the Wildcats' recent recruiting. The 2013 class will be upperclassmen, the 2014 class is Northwestern's best of the 21st century, and its 2015 class was strong as well.

The full projections can be found here.

Let's take a look at where Northwestern ranks in relation to its Big Ten counterparts:

Big Ten 2016 projections

Italics indicate a team on Northwestern's 2016 schedule

Big Ten West

26. Nebraska
37. Wisconsin
38. Iowa
42. Minnesota

46. Northwestern
76. Illinois
88. Purdue

Big Ten East

6. Michigan
14. Ohio State
22. Michigan State
28. Penn State
56. Indiana
62. Maryland
87. Rutgers

Northwestern nonconference opponents

51. Duke
65. Western Michigan
N/A Illinois State

Strength of schedule

The average S&P+ ranking projection of Northwestern's 11 2016 FBS opponents is 46.8 — which, coincidentally, is nearly identical to Northwestern's own ranking.

Last season, the average final S&P+ ranking of Northwestern's 11 regular season FBS opponents was 49.2 — so only slightly weaker. Last season's schedule was strong at the top, with both Michigan and Stanford in the top 10, therefore inflating the average. It was weaker at the bottom, though. Ball State finished 111th, whereas Western Michigan, Northwestern's MAC foe in 2016, is projected 65th.

With the Big Ten moving to a nine-game conference schedule this year, the construction of NU's schedule is different. The 2016 nonconference schedule retains Duke, a MAC team and an FCS team. The game that gets lost is the second Power Five game. Thus, we can think of NU's three Big Ten crossover games in 2016 as replacing last year's two crossovers, plus the Stanford game. If we do, that portion of Northwestern's schedule actually appears to be easier than it was last year. Last year's Nos. 6, 10 and 30 teams are replaced by this year's projected Nos. 14, 22 and 56 teams.

Based on the projections, and factoring in home field advantage, Northwestern should be favored in six of its 12 games. It should be an underdog in four of the 12. The final two, home games against higher ranked teams in Nebraska and Wisconsin, would be closer to toss-ups.