Brian Bennett of ESPN released his preseason Big Ten power rankings yesterday with Northwestern coming in at seven. Bennett wrote the following about Pat Fitzgerald’s squad:
Indeed, after a 10-win season, a ranking of seventh does appear low, especially given that the Wildcats posted more regular season wins than three of the teams in front of them (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska). That’s not to say Northwestern should have a better ranking than a powerhouse like Michigan, who smoked the Wildcats 38-0 last season, but No. 7 stands out as low. Like Bennett mentioned, Walker and Jackson make Northwestern a threat, and a likely improved Thorson with a top-10 defense nationally from a year ago make a dangerous pairing. The Wildcats are sandwiched in between No. 6 Nebraska and No. 8 Minnesota, both of whom they beat last year.
Predictably leading the list are Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, all legitimate candidates to reach the third College Football Playoff come New Year’s.
Like Bennett said, there are doubts about Northwestern’s ability to repeat its 10-win season of 2015—and rightfully so. Northwestern faces a grueling October schedule in which they head to Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus, plus key losses like Dean Lowry and Dan Vitale add to the skepticism. And our Henry Bushnell wrote during the 2015 run that luck may have played a big factor in Northwestern’s success.
Without a doubt, all of those factors combine to add skepticism and take Northwestern out of the top five in the preseason rankings.
But while falling behind Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin certainly makes sense, it’s Nebraska landing ahead of Northwestern at No. 6 that is truly puzzling. A team that went 6-7 last year and lost to Northwestern in Lincoln being ranked ahead of the Wildcats is suspect, especially given that Nebraska didn’t make any significant offseason improvements.
Nonetheless, Bennett’s ranking of Northwestern at No. 7 isn’t far off. Maybe No. 6 would stand as a more fair ranking, but arguing for Northwestern ahead of any of the top five would be a tall task.