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How Northwestern’s best teams of the past would’ve fared in a 12-team playoff

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On today’s episode of The Twilight Zone...

Northwestern team

With the College Football Playoff announcing that its management committee will consider a shift from the current 4-team format to a 12-team arrangement during their meeting this week in Chicago, many have begun to speculate what teams could inch their way into the battle for the national title for the first time as a result of the proposed system.

While Northwestern has been discussed as one school that could benefit from expansion — despite that fact that, even if a 12-team playoff had been in place since the beginning of the CFP in 2014, the ‘Cats still wouldn’t have snuck in by now despite a number of close calls — one can find a litany of potential NU berths should a 12-team competition for the championship have been the norm since the establishment of college football. Here, we’ll take a look at those potential playoff opportunities and evaluate whether they would’ve amounted to anything special.

Methodology

Before we get into how Northwestern’s teams of the past would’ve fared, first we must evaluate which teams would’ve made the cut for a 12-team playoff in the first place. This is somewhat tricky because of the various eras of College Football and the ways in which ranking systems have changed over time. For a while, the Associated Press poll reigned supreme before the Bowl Championship Series’ algorithm-developed standings became the standard in 1998. Then, in 2014, the CFP rankings were adopted alongside the newly-established playoff and have remained in place ever since.

As such, we’ll use each era’s most mainstream regular season-end ranking system to determine whether the ‘Cats made the cut. Additionally, the proposed rules about who must make the playoff (at least one mid-major team) and who the top four, bye week-receiving teams must be (the top four ranked major conference champions) will be taken into account.

Under these parameters (and with the exclusion of the 1943 ‘Cats, who would’ve qualified for a 12-team field but for whom hypothesizing would be too difficult due to the presence of a variety of smaller, World War II-era military academies also in the mix), six Northwestern teams would’ve qualified for the hypothetical 12-team College Football Playoff in their time: the Wildcats of 1936, 1940, 1941, 1948, 1995 and 1996.

1936

Final Regular Season AP Ranking: 7th

Hypothetical Seeding: 8th (Hopped by 9th-ranked Nebraska due to top four major conference champion rule)

Hypothetical first-round matchup: vs. 9-seed Notre Dame

In 1936, the first year of the AP Poll, the ‘Cats had as good of a claim to the National Championship as any in Northwestern history. Despite finishing the season with a loss at Notre Dame, the Wildcats held the same record at seasons’ end as the would-be National Champions, Minnesota, who they had defeated 6-0 at Dyche Stadium that year.

However, NU getting waxed 26-6 by the Fighting Irish in South Bend was enough to drop the ‘Cats from 1st to 7th in the eyes of the AP, and the rule indicating that the top four seeds must be the top four ranked conference champions means that Nebraska would have garnered the fourth seed and a bye week despite sitting behind three independent schools (Pittsburgh, Santa Clara and Notre Dame), two Western/Big Ten schools (Northwestern and Minnesota), two SEC schools (LSU and Alabama) and Washington, the champions of the Pacific Coast Conference (which would disband in 1959 before most of its members joined what would become the Pac-8).

Notre Dame’s upset of the Wildcats also meant that the fighting Irish moved from 11th to 8th in the rankings, meaning that the battle of the eight and nine seeds would have been a rematch of the November 21 ND-NU contest, this time held in Evanston. While I’d love to suppose that the home-field advantage combined with some textbook Pappy Waldorf coaching would’ve done the trick, the truth is that a 20-point beatdown back then represented much more of a significant bludgeoning than it would today, so the Fighting Irish would likely be favored to defeat Northwestern for the second time in as many games.

Hypothetical Result: First-round loss to Notre Dame.

1940

Final Regular Season AP Ranking: 7th

Hypothetical Seeding: 7th

Hypothetical first-round matchup: vs. 10-seed Pennsylvania

The 1940 Wildcats rode the back of second-team All-Big Ten back Ollie Hahnenstein (who himself was supported by three first-team all-conference offensive linemen) to a 6-2 record, falling only to Minnesota (who would go undefeated and once again claim the national championship) and Michigan (who lost only to the Golden Gophers and finished the year ranked third by the AP), while securing blowout wins over Syracuse, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.

Their first-round playoff opponent would’ve been the University of Pennsylvania Quakers, whose only record blemishes were a tie with Harvard and a 15-0 defeat at the hands of the previously mentioned Michigan Wolverinces. The Wildcats fell to the Wolverines by seven, less than half the margin that the Quakers fell by, so by the perfectly infallible transitive property of sports, it’s assumed that Northwestern would have defeated Penn and advanced to a quarterfinal matchup.

Some seeding controversy comes in here, as the last AP poll released before a handful of postseason matchups were played also came out before the very last of regular season results were recorded, including would-be 2-seed and defending AP champions Texas A&M’s loss to rival Texas. Still, given that Northwestern and Penn’s seeding were based off of the final regular season poll, the same courtesy will be extended to the Aggies, making them NU’s hypothetical quarterfinal opponent.

If NU’s run game was good in 1940, then A&M’s was great. The Aggies’ running back, John Kimbrough, finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. Their defense was stout too, allowing no more than seven points in each of their regular season contests. As such, it seems likely that had the two teams met, Texas A&M would’ve prevailed.

Hypothetical result: Quarterfinal loss to Texas A&M

1941

Final Regular Season AP Ranking: 9th

Hypothetical Seeding: 9th

Hypothetical first-round matchup: @ 8-seed Fordham

The seeding here gets wacky for a variety of conference realignment-related reasons. First, what would be considered a “major conference” in 1941 might not exist today, and if it does, it may exist in drastically different fashion. Case in point: the would-be 2-seed in 1941, Texas A&M, played in the now defunct Southwestern Conference, and the would-be 3-seed, Duke, played in the drastically transformed Southern Conference. Still, these conferences were home to powers such as Texas and Clemson at the time, so they’ll count as major conferences for the purpose of the hypothetical playoff.

The conference realignment issues further complicate things when adding in the CFP’s proposed inclusion of at least one mid-major in the 12-team field, as there isn’t a team from a seemingly non-major conference in the AP poll. All of this results in Northwestern keeping its AP spot at No. 9 for the playoff seeding in the first year of the Otto Graham era, which would have sent them on a trip to New York to play then-independent power Fordham.

Fordham’s 1941 offense was streaky, scoring between 16 and 35 points in seven of the Rams’ games, but posting a combined two points in its two toughest contests of the year (a loss to unranked Pitt in which the Rams were shutout and a 2-0 victory over seventh-ranked Mizzou in the Sugar Bowl). On the other hand, powered by the first-year Graham, NU was a more consistent offense, and would have emerged victorious over the Rams.

This sets up a rematch between Northwestern and Minnesota, who met earlier in the season when the Wildcats fell to the Golden Gophers in what would prove to be their most narrow victory of yet another national title campaign, with UMN winning by a bizarre score of 8-7. While the close margin suggests the ‘Cats could’ve put up a fight and potentially pulled off the upset, in all three of the games it played against top-6 opponents in 1941, NU lost. As such, it seems irresponsible to suggest that chain would’ve broken in the quarterfinals.

Hypothetical result: Quarterfinal loss to Minnesota

1948

Final Regular Season AP Ranking: 7th

Hypothetical Seeding: 7th

Hypothetical first-round matchup: vs. 10-seed Oregon

In its famed Rose Bowl season, under a 12-team Playoff, Northwestern would not have played the Cal Bears in their first postseason contest, but rather, another representative of the PCC: Oregon. These Ducks — er, Webfoots, the official mascot at the time — were actually denied a bid to the Rose Bowl (where they would’ve met NU) by a vote from their conference, but still faced two of the same teams NU did: the UCLA Bruins, who they beat by the same margin of 19 as the ‘Cats, and Michigan, which shutout both teams while posting 14 on the Webfoots and 28 on the Wildcats.

Given the slight advantage in performance against shared opponents and the general benefit that was given NU in their last two first-round matchups, Oregon is the assumed winner in this scenario

Hypothetical result: First-round loss to Oregon

1995

Final Regular Season AP Ranking: 3rd

Hypothetical Seeding: 3rd

Hypothetical Quarterfinal matchup (following first-round bye): vs. 6-seed Tennessee (neutral site)

If you’ve read up to this point, it was probably to get to this year. The Year.

As you might’ve predicted, this NU team will get further in our hypothetical playoff than any other. Their postseason run starts with a battle against Peyton Manning and his sixth-seeded Tennessee Volunteers. This would’ve been a great fight of strength against strength, as the Manning-powered Vols pitted against an NU defense that had the 10th-lowest opposing passer rating in the country, while the Darnell Autry-led ‘Cats offense would have run into the brick wall of Tennessee’s defense, which allowed the 13th-fewest rushing yards per game to opposing offenses. The edge goes to Northwestern, though, which had a better unit against the rush than the Vols did against the pass (supposing that in this fantasy world of a century-old 12-team playoff, a magical potion also exists to heal Pat Fitzgerald in time for the game).

On the other side of the bracket, much like the ‘Cats had to start the season, 2-seed Florida overcame 7-seed Notre Dame, setting up a battle between the Gators and the Wildcats with a spot in the national title game on the line. UF had an absolutely electric offense, but like their fellow-SEC school Tennessee, Florida leaned on the pass more than the run, and defending against the pass was where the ‘95 ‘Cats excelled. Northwestern wins, and the purple makes its way to Phoenix for the National Championship.

Unfortunately, this Cinderella story doesn’t get the happy ending it deserves. Nebraska, which steamrolled its way to the national championship in real life and does so again in this hypothetical world, is simply too strong for the ‘Cats to handle, though they put up a valiant fight and Autry has a 82-yard TD carry in the first quarter that goes down in Northwestern lore.

Hypothetical result: National Championship Game loss to Nebraska

1996

Final Regular Season AP Ranking: 11th

Hypothetical Seeding: 11th

Hypothetical first-round matchup : @ 6-seed Nebraska

If anything could put a damper on back-to-back playoff appearances for Northwestern after a nearly half-century-long drought, it would be playing Nebraska — the team that knocked the ‘Cats off in the previous season’s championship game — in the first round. Unfortunately, that’s just what happens here.

The 11th-seeded ‘Cats are forced to travel to Lincoln and face a raucous crowd of Husker fans on top of an already fearsome UNL roster, and as one might suppose, it doesn’t go well for NU. This game ends up being slightly closer than the previous year’s battle, but in reality, both teams were a bit worse in ‘96 than they were in ‘95, so things might’ve evened out to look somewhat similar to the hypothetical match the year prior. Either way, it’s hard to see the Wildcats coming back to Evanston with a win in this one.

Hypothetical result: First-round loss to Nebraska