Pillote: Northwestern’s case for the New Year’s Six


Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor


Last week I wrote that the Outback Bowl, played Jan. 1 in Tampa, Florida, is Northwestern’s most likely postseason destination, and that remains the case after the Wildcats’ win over Illinois on Saturday. But coach Pat Fitzgerald has bigger things in mind for his football team and lobbied hard for a spot in the coveted New Year’s Six bowls immediately after securing a 10-win regular season.

“Look at the resume,” Fitzgerald said. “You look at that we not only played a Pac-12 team (Stanford), we also played an ACC team (Duke) down on the road. We played an FCS playoff team (Eastern Illinois). And then you look at our two losses: If my numbers are correct, is that 21-3, the (win-loss record of the) two teams that we lost to? That’s an excuse, we shouldn’t have lost, but those are two pretty darn good teams. And the rest of the games we won.”

The New Year’s Six represent the top tier of the college football postseason. The College Football Playoff committee helps select the 12 participating teams by way of its rankings, and if the Wildcats sneak into the11th spot (not 12th because of an automatic berth granted to the highest-ranked “Group of 5” conferences team) they can be placed into either the Peach Bowl, played Dec. 31 in Atlanta, or the Fiesta Bowl, played Jan. 1 in Glendale, Arizona.

The odds don’t look great for NU, however.

We won’t know for sure until the latest round of CFP rankings are released Tuesday evening, but right now it seems as though NU is on the outside looking in. Both the AP Poll and Coaches Poll, released Sunday, have the Cats at No. 13, behind competitors such as Notre Dame and Florida State. With most teams done for the season, NU will have a hard time moving up.

The current New Year’s Six picture looks something like this: The playoff field will consist of the winner of the ACC Championship, played between Clemson and North Carolina; Alabama, if the Crimson Tide prevail over Florida in the SEC Championship; Big 12 champion Oklahoma; and the winner of the Big Ten championship, played between Iowa and Michigan State. All championship games will be played Saturday, and Clemson, Alabama and Michigan State are all favored.

The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, part of the New Year’s Six, each have conference tie-ins this year that preclude NU from selection.  The Rose Bowl will take the highest-ranked Big Ten team that isn’t in the playoff — which will almost certainly be Ohio State — and the Pac-12 champion, and likewise the Sugar Bowl is obligated to take the teams from the SEC and Big 12. Even if the Cats end up higher than Baylor or TCU in the final ranking, one of those teams will get pulled into the Sugar Bowl.

With one of the at-large bids to the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl going to the winner of the American Athletic Conference Championship, played between Temple and Houston, there are only a handful of scenarios that will get NU into one of the three remaining spots. Also keep in mind that each possibility is contingent on Clemson and Alabama winning their respective championship games. If one of those teams loses, they’ll be bumped from the playoff and will subsequently bump the Cats from the New Year’s Six. Assuming Clemson and Alabama both prevail, North Carolina and Florida will be eliminated from consideration, helping NU.

The best bet for the Cats is a blowout win by Iowa over Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. The Spartans have stood on somewhat shaky ground all season, with their two most impressive wins coming on a buzzer-beater field goal and one of the most improbable plays in college football history. If Michigan State really embarrasses itself — something akin to Wisconsin’s 59-0 face-plant last year — the playoff committee could demote a two-loss Spartans team beneath NU.

Beyond that, the Cats need to convince the Playoff committee they’re better than Notre Dame and Florida State, the two other two-loss teams jockeying for a New Year’s Six berth (besides Stanford, which will automatically qualify with a conference title, and TCU and Baylor, one of whom will likely be slotted into the Sugar Bowl, as explained above).

Just looking at wins and losses, NU actually has an edge. The Cats boast victories over ranked Stanford and Wisconsin teams, and their only two losses came against ranked Michigan and Iowa squads. Florida State and Notre Dame both lack a signature win, though the Fighting Irish’s two losses likewise came at the hands of highly ranked Stanford and Clemson teams, and the Seminoles also lost to Clemson and dropped a game against Georgia Tech on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.

Hopefully the committee doesn’t look any closer than that, because things start to get ugly for NU. Notre Dame’s two losses came by a combined 4 points, and Florida State’s came by a combined 16. The Cats dropped their games by a combined 68, suffering a shutout in the process.

Advanced stats are even worse. Florida State ranks fifth in Football Outsider’s S&P+ metric and Notre Dame ranks ninth; NU is a distant 51st.

The Cats hold no conceivable edge over the Fighting Irish and Seminoles, unless the committee decides to take pity on NU and count last year’s win over Notre Dame as a valid head-to-head comparison or really thinks Florida State’s lack of a big win hurts the Seminoles. Strange things happen in college football, and the Cats jumping two likely superior teams would be one of them.

But Fitzgerald is right to lobby for his team. The college football postseason always manages to be a wildly subjective process, and with that in mind, NU still has an outside chance at the New Year’s Six.

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