Last weekend, Northwestern did what would have been unthinkable immediately following last year’s season — they secured the inside path to the Big Ten West title. Saturday’s defensive slugfest against No. 10 (now No. 16) Wisconsin was not eye candy, but it got the job done. The Wildcats have been rewarded with perhaps the best gift of all: controlling their destiny.
Everything from here until December 19 is downhill. The ‘Cats travel to East Lansing to play Michigan State this weekend, then Minnesota the weekend after (pending the Gophers’ COVID situation) before finishing the regular season against Illinois (HAT). With Wisconsin-Minnesota canceled for this Saturday, the Badgers will not play the minimum six games to qualify for the Big Ten Championship. NU already had Indy in its sights after taking down the Badgers, but now it must win only one of its remaining three scheduled contests to capture the West.
But this isn’t 2018, where the Wildcats are a surprise division winner and potentially clinch it two weeks before the end of the season. They aren’t 6-4, having endured a sloppy start before scraping together some victories. They’re 5-0 with wins over two currently-ranked teams and are ranked eighth in the first College Football Playoff rankings reveal.
NU has genuine hopes on a national stage. After creeping up to No. 19 in the AP Poll following its win over Purdue, the ‘Cats vaulted up to 11th. The CFP Committee liked them enough to put them in the top eight, officially crowning Northwestern as a football school now that its ranking outpaces that of its U.S. News and World Report ranking.
We've officially reached the most chaotic moment of this already chaotic year: Northwestern's College Football Playoff ranking is higher than its U.S. News and World Report ranking. https://t.co/M5bv7DdnuC— Ella Brockway (@ellabrockway) November 25, 2020
It’s hard not to get ahead of ourselves, but you can’t help but think with an initial ranking this high. All signs point to Ohio State as the East representative after the Buckeyes held on against pesky Indiana. The path to the Playoff is simple: win out. There may be a few hypothetical scenarios in which NU wins its final four (or three) games and doesn’t get make the field of four, but those are few and far in between.
The Fighting Rece Davises have garnered plenty of national attention and hype, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s on their mind.
Texted with Pat Fitzgerald about Northwestern's ranking. He asked me what they were ranked. Then said: "I assume we control our own destiny...1-0 is all we need to focus on." Fair enough.— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) November 25, 2020
With a chance to move to 6-0 and clinch the West against a struggling Spartan squad, players said Wednesday that their work is far from finished. 5-0 is nice, but it’s not near the goal (unless maybe you play in the Pac-12), and they aren’t satisfied.
Instead, Fitz’s time-tested motto that focuses on what’s right in front of you fits this unpredictable season perfectly. 1-0, baby. Fair enough.