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.