Big Ten

Fitz wants committee to respect Northwestern's resume, identity

pat-fitzgerald-1129.png

Fitz wants committee to respect Northwestern's resume, identity

The way the Big Ten played out this season, it would seem that Northwestern doesn’t have much of a chance to land a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

But that’s not stopping Pat Fitzgerald from campaigning for his Wildcats, who finished their regular season at 10-2 with a 24-14 win over Illinois on Saturday at Soldier Field.

The Cats won’t be going to the College Football Playoff, as undefeated Iowa won the Big Ten West, preventing Northwestern from even competing for a conference championship. But there are four other major bowl games to which the College Football Playoff selection committee hands out invites. Fitzgerald argues — and he’s right — that the Cats deserve consideration with all the other teams out there that finished their seasons with double-digit wins.

“We talk about going 1-0 each week. It sounds like a coachism, but really, I think it’s a huge challenge on 17- to 22-year-old guys to focus in the moment,” Fitzgerald said. “When you think about all the distractions on their plate, the schedule that we played this year and only have two bumps in the road against two outstanding footballs teams, speaks volumes about not only the senior class but where we’re headed as a program. We’ve got a lot of room for improvement. We’re not the finished product in all three phases right now, but we know who we are and we’ve embraced that here through Big Ten play.

“Some games, it’s been better than others, but we know exactly who we are and we’ve stuck to that formula, and now we’ve got to use the next couple weeks to really improve some areas where we have room for improvement.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern seniors cement legacy with second 10-win season]

The thing that makes that tricky is the Big Ten itself. And Fitzgerald isn’t saying that the Cats should be ranked ahead of Iowa or Michigan — the only two teams Northwestern lost to this season — or one-loss teams Michigan State and Ohio State. Those four teams would all figure to go to more prestigious bowl games than the Cats: One will likely end up in the Playoff, two will likely get spots in other New Year’s Six games.

His particular beef deals with Stanford and the fact that the selection committee ranked the two-loss Cardinal in the top 10 last week, while keeping the two-loss Cats outside the top 15. Northwestern beat Stanford in the season-opener, and that game has been excused by the committee in recent weeks because it was the first game of the season and because Stanford was playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time, a silly argument to many about why that game didn’t matter that much when it comes to Stanford’s resume. The truth is, Northwestern dominated that game, keeping Stanford out of the end zone with the first of many great defensive performances.

Now the Cardinal are fresh off a win over No. 6 Notre Dame and will compete for a Pac-12 championship next weekend, right in the thick of the Playoff discussion. The Cats — with the same record in a tougher conference and a head-to-head win — won’t be anywhere near that discussion.

So Fitzgerald did a little politicking after Saturday’s win, trying to convince the committee to take a closer look at Northwestern for consideration in one of the big four bowl games outside the Playoff.

[MORE BIG TEN: It might not last long, but future is set for Bill Cubit, Illini]

“It’s kind of like where we are in the College Football Playoff rankings. I saw a team ranked X amount of spots ahead of us that we beat. I don’t get it,” Fitzgerald said. “Pop on the tape and watch the film. Our kids dominated that game (against Stanford), and I don’t think they get any credit. And we didn’t win by 50 (Saturday against Illinois), so we’ll continue to get disrespected from that standpoint.

“Played a very competitive schedule, had two bumps in the road. Played two Power 5 teams that are both playing in the postseason (Stanford and Duke). I think our performance, our resume speaks for itself.

“I would say look at the resume. You look at that we not only played a Pac-12 team, we also played an ACC team down on the road. We played an FCS playoff team. And then you look at our two losses ... that’s 21-3, the two teams that we lost to (combined record of Iowa and Michigan). That’s an excuse, we shouldn’t have lost, but those are two pretty darn good teams. And the rest of the games, we’ve won.

“The eyeball test is wins, and the rest of the stuff is great for SportsCenter and BTN, for you guys to write about. But we won the games that put us in position to be in the conversation, and I would ask the committee to take a look at the film, watch the tape. Especially in that team that we beat early in the year.

“I’m tired of hearing about that it was early in the morning. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of it, not for me, I’m tired of it for those kids that have been through a lot, and I just feel they’re getting disrespected. Pop on the video. We dominated the line of scrimmage, we dominated that football game.

“Obviously, we let two get away, so that’s our fault. And we deserve to be where we would be because of that. But I’m tired of hearing about five wins two years in a row, and I’m tired of hearing that game was at 9. It’s a 10-win football team that’s played well.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]

Taking aim at the committee's view of the Stanford game is all well and good, but will it get the Cats to where they want to be?

Fitzgerald’s issue with the committee didn’t stop at the head-to-head comparison between his team and Stanford. He pointed out that Northwestern likely isn’t getting the attention it deserves because of its lack of style points. The Cats play a game predicated on defensive dominance, running the ball well and grinding out wins in close games. The team’s passing attack has been among the worst in the country, something that hurts its reputation when teams across the nation are putting up 50 points a week with air-raid attacks.

But that doesn’t make the Cats worse, it merely makes them different. They boasted one of the best defenses in college football this season, and that’s something that should be commended just as much as the big-time point production of teams like Baylor and Oklahoma.

“We’re a Chicago football team. We’re old school. Four yards and a cloud of dust,” Fitzgerald said. “To a lot a people, they think that’s boring. I couldn’t care less what they think. I call it winning. That’s who we are right now. I’d love to put up the Baylor numbers, and I’d love to put up some of the other numbers that some of these teams are offensively. But they can’t shake a stick at our defense. We know who we are, and we have to play to who we are.”

It’s one thing to play that kind of style and struggle. But Northwestern has played that kind of style and won 10 games. It’s playing that style just as well as other teams play their styles.

Will the Cats make a New Year’s Six bowl game? Probably not. There are just too many teams from their own conference in front of them, and as the Big Ten accounting for nearly half the teams in big-time bowl games would be, it’s just not happening. But the Cats’ final ranking should be higher than it was this week. They should be closer to the top 10 than they are currently. They should be considered for a New Year’s Six bowl game.

And that’s what Fitzgerald — who’s worked hard to turn this program from a laughingstock into a 10-game winner — is trying to convey.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?