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Northwestern Wildcats football: Through six games and two losses, where does this team stand?

This team was supposed to compete for a Big Ten Championship, but now they're 0-2 in conference play. Is the dream dead?

Mike McGinnis

After all the pomp and hype, Northwestern is 0-2 in conference play. That's not good, because it means Northwestern has played two conference games and loss both of them, but it's actually even worse, because the second of those games was a cataclysm.

Against Wisconsin, basically no facet of Northwestern's game looked good. The defense looked alright at moments, forcing turnovers on occasion and allowing 35 points, which would have been enough for Northwestern to win most of their games this year. The offense was a barren, plague-infested skeletal wasteland, and since the hypothetical cause for the horror was injuries to Venric Mark and Kain Colter -- and we don't know whether Venric Mark and Kain Colter will be healthy -- there's reason to believe a unit that looked strong most of the year is in trouble.

The way I can see it, you can look at the position in which Northwestern finds itself in one of two ways, depending on your philosophical views of losses in sports games.

1. A loss is a loss, no matter the score

If all L's are the same to you, Northwestern is actually in rather good shape. Yes, the first two games of Big Ten play resulted in two losses. Doing the math, that means Northwestern is on pace to finish 0-8, right? 

But those two loses were to Ohio State and Wisconsin, the best team on Northwestern's schedule and either the second- or third-best, depending on your opinion of Nebraska. It's not like this was unexpected. Any reasonable look at Northwestern's schedule could have included them losing the first two games, and they were not favored in those games.

We've long recognized the possibility that a very good Northwestern team could lose to two very good teams to kick things off, and although it majorly restricts the chance for a Big Ten Championship, it's still in play. You have to win out, which will be hard, but you won't have to play teams like OSU and Wisconsin every week. It's certainly possible.

Let's look at the other teams Northwestern is contending against:

Cornhuskers Football Schedule

Wyoming Sat 08/31 W 37 - 34
Southern Miss. Sat 09/07 W 56 - 13
UCLA Sat 09/14 L 21 - 41
South Dakota St. Sat 09/21 W 59 - 20
Illinois Sat 10/05 W 39 - 19
@ Purdue Sat 10/12 W 44 - 7
@ Minnesota Sat 10/26 TBA
Northwestern Sat 11/02 TBA
@ Michigan Sat 11/09 TBA
Michigan St. Sat 11/16 TBA
@ Penn St. Sat 11/23 TBA
Iowa Fri 11/29 11:00 AM CST

This is the problem team. Even if Northwestern beats Nebraska, the Huskers have to pick up an L somewhere else on the schedule for the Wildcats to be above them in the standings at 6-2. Their defense has looked mighty questionable at points, but they've looked impressive since the embarrassing UCLA game.

Wolverines Football Schedule

Central Michigan Sat 08/31 W 59 - 9
Notre Dame Sat 09/07 W 41 - 30
Akron Sat 09/14 W 28 - 24
@ Connecticut Sat 09/21 W 24 - 21
Minnesota Sat 10/05 W 42 - 13
@ Penn St. Sat 10/12 L 40 - 43
Indiana Sat 10/19 2:30 PM CDT
@ Michigan St. Sat 11/02 TBA
Nebraska Sat 11/09 TBA
@ Northwestern Sat 11/16 TBA
@ Iowa Sat 11/23 TBA
Ohio St. Sat 11/30 TBA

Michigan seems to pretty legitimately be an awful football team. After they lost to Penn State, all Northwestern has to do is beat them in the head-to-head to pass them in the standings if both teams win out otherwise.

Spartans Football Schedule

Western Michigan Fri 08/30 W 26 - 13
South Florida Sat 09/07 W 21 - 6
Youngstown St. Sat 09/14 W 55 - 17
@ Notre Dame Sat 09/21 L 13 - 17
@ Iowa Sat 10/05 W 26 - 14
Indiana Sat 10/12 W 42 - 28
Purdue Sat 10/19 11:00 AM CDT
@ Illinois Sat 10/26 2:30 PM CDT
Michigan Sat 11/02 TBA
@ Nebraska Sat 11/16 TBA
@ Northwestern Sat 11/23 TBA
Minnesota Sat 11/30 TBA

Their once-anemic offense has looked okay enough to win a pair of Big Ten football games, and they're in pretty good shape. Their game against Nebraska could turn the Spartans rather than the Huskers into the one-loss team that keeps a 6-2 Northwestern team out of the B1G championship, but they could lose to Michigan or conceivably anybody if their offense regresses.

So that's what the situation looks like. If NU wins out, which it's quite possible they do considering the schedule, they're still possibly in line for a Big Ten -- we just have to get our rooting interests on.

But that brings us to the second point...

2. How you lose is rather important

Last year Northwestern won 10 games, but the three they lost were close affairs the Wildcats led late. This led many to believe that they were a better team than the three losses indicated.

This year, Northwestern went 4-0, but their first loss was a tight game that they could have won against Ohio State. This led many to be rather excited about their last seven games, since they went toe-to-toe with the best team in the conference.

That's why it's tough to optimistically reconcile the football events of Saturday. Northwesternwas very legitimately trounced. Yes, there were injuries that robbed the Wildcats of their two most effective playmakers, but that argument has two problems: an injury also took Jared Abbrederis away from Wisconsin, and the Badgers kept moving the ball. And injuries, you know, linger. Venric Mark's issue has kept him from being explosive all year long, and we really don't know Kain Colter's problem and how serious it is.

You can chalk some of the loss up to the fact that college players' skillsets tend to wobble hugely from Saturday to Saturday. After a great start to the season, Trevor Siemian looked worse than in any game he's ever played, save a 1-for-7 outing against Minnesota last year. That was compounded by his receivers dropping several passes. Somehow, everything just clicked off at the same time.

But a lot of Northwestern's problems were of the consistent type -- as in, run defense that not only fails to stop teams from methodically marching down the field but also gives up big plays from time to time.

And if that's Northwestern at its worst... well, Northwestern at its worst is pretty bad. The Wildcats played several really good football games to start the year,  but if that Big Ten Championship thing is going to be a thing, they have to go 6-0. A team that occasionally plays like that probably can't go 6-0, because a team that plays like that can lose on any given Saturday. That includes this upcoming weekend against Minnesota, in a game Northwestern is expected to win, but, you know, umm.... that could be trouble.

I expect Northwestern to win four or five of its next six games, and six is a possibility. But considering football, it's hard for me to continue expecting a Big Ten Championship, although I'll continue believing it's possible until it mathematically isn't.

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