Pope: Northwestern’s 2018 campaign one of the strangest seasons in college football history


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


This past Saturday, while Northwestern fans were following the Wildcats’ win over Minnesota and general football fans were watching much-anticipated games like Notre Dame-Syracuse, Akron was quietly falling 21-6, at home, to a Bowling Green team that entered the day 2-8 with no permanent head coach.

The Zips have not scored an offensive touchdown in more than nine consecutive quarters now, dating back to Nov. 1. Out of 130 FBS teams, they are now ranked 112th by S&P+, a popular, all-inclusive advanced evaluator statistic.

Of course, NU fans will vividly remember the night back in September when Akron stunned the Cats. Yet one of those teams is now the Big Ten West champion, and the other is now 2-5 in the MAC.

Slow starts are nothing new for NU: the Cats began 1-3 in 2016 but rallied to finish 7-6; they were 2-3 early last fall but went 10-3. But there’s one difference between this team and those of the past two years: those teams still didn’t come particularly close to winning the West.

This one, however, did. It’s undoubtedly one of the weirdest turn of events in modern college football history.

What’s weird about it? Well, here are a few things. NU suffered the aforementioned loss to Akron, didn’t score a single second-half point in three of its first four games, was about to be 0-4 at home before the miraculous rally to beat Nebraska, needed a fourth-quarter comeback to inch past miserable Rutgers, ranks 111th nationally in yards per game, has no consistently healthy kickers and has only one of four starters healthy in the defensive backfield. And oh yeah, watched star running back Jeremy Larkin’s career end after three games.

Speaking of S&P+, the formula is not much more bullish about the Cats than the Zips. It ranks the Big Ten West champions 76th overall, below teams like Miami (Ohio) and Middle Tennessee, not to mention every other west division team besides Illinois. No other power conference division champion has ever ranked worse than 49th, until now.

The counter-argument is that NU’s identity has long been to play stout defense, keep games close throughout and then pull out victories late using discipline and intelligence. That strategy is rarely pretty or convincing, doesn’t lend itself to blowing out inferior teams and often takes a few weeks to get running efficiently. But it does, and has, worked. Coach Pat Fitzgerald historically has one of the highest close-game winning percentages in the nation, and his teams frequently overachieve what analytics project (the 10-3 team in 2015, for example, was 57th in S&P+).

But that doesn’t make this autumn’s results any less weird. NU didn’t simply put up ugly numbers but win its non-conference games; it actually outright lost them. It could become just the second team since 1952, and first since 1982, to win a Big Ten title without any non-Big Ten wins.

Furthermore, the Cats’ opponent S&P+ ranking and their own performance percentile (another S&P+ evaluation) this season is significantly correlated — negatively. They play well against good teams, and poorly against bad teams. No other Big Ten team is as unpredictable, and it’s not particularly close.

And so NU will head to Indianapolis next week in the strange position of being, by the numbers, both one of the most unlikely conference championship participants ever and also a not-enormous underdog to win that championship game.

It will be a fitting next chapter in this most strange of seasons.

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Twitter: @benpope111