Football: Where Northwestern stands amidst the hectic, uncertain Big Ten season

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Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Pat Fitzgerald talks to his team. NU enters a pivotal moment in the race for the Big Ten West title this weekend against Purdue.

Ella Brockway, Gameday Editor


Football


It’s nearly the midpoint of the Big Ten football season, and it’s safe to say that the 2020 campaign has not been quite what everyone expected. 

With three game cancellations in the conference thus far, and only a handful of teams holding onto perfect records, the race for the Big Ten crown is about to become even more interesting.  On one side of conference, No. 23 Northwestern travels to Purdue for what could prove to be a pivotal matchup in the fight for the West.

It’s 2020, so everything could change within just a day — the abrupt cancellation of Saturday’s matchup between No. 3 Ohio State and Maryland, and its ramifications for the Big Ten East race, showed just that. Ahead of the showdown in West Lafayette, The Daily laid out all you need to know about what’s going on in the Big Ten.

What the divisions look like

The Wildcats sits at the top of the Big Ten West, with a perfect record through three games. Undefeated Purdue is right below NU in the second slot, but has only played two games. Wisconsin — still holding onto its No. 13 national ranking — is recovering from a COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined its whole program for two straight games after a blowout victory in its season opener. The division’s other two preseason ranked teams, Minnesota and Iowa, are in the middle of the pack with 1-2 records, unlikely to make big challenges for the crown.

Things are equally as interesting in the East. To no one’s real surprise, Ohio State leads the division at 3-0, but perhaps more surprising is who the Buckeyes are tied with for that number one spot: No. 10 Indiana. With Ohio State not playing this weekend, the Hoosiers have a chance to claim their spot atop the division with a win over Michigan State.

Maryland still theoretically remains in the race with a 2-1 record, but is now battling a COVID-19 outbreak of its own. Near the bottom of the division, two of the conference’s perennial powers, Michigan and Penn State, currently sit in second-to-last and last place, with odds of staging a late-season comeback to advance to the Big Ten Championship Game looking nearly impossible.

The race for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game

The top winning percentage in conference games (counting both division and non-division matchups) was the initial criteria for determining the East and West champions, but now that three games across the Big Ten have already been canceled, things look a little more complicated.

A team must play at least six games to be eligible for its division’s spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. If all the conference’s teams can play the rest of their schedules out (Wisconsin is the real team in question, and looks set to return to action Saturday against Michigan), they should all be eligible.

The Badgers likely have the toughest path forward, with games against the Wolverines, NU and red-hot Indiana all coming in three of the next four weeks. If Wisconsin drops two of those games, and the Cats and Boilermakers each finish the regular season with one loss, the result of this weekend’s game in West Lafayette looks even more important.

If NU, Purdue and Wisconsin all end up at the top of the West with one loss but different amounts of wins based on different games played, it’ll come down to head-to-head results again. If Wisconsin stays undefeated against Michigan and Indiana, a win at Purdue would help NU’s cause (since the matchup between the Boilermakers and the Badgers was ruled a no contest) but the Cats would need another victory the following week against Wisconsin to seal up the division.

Two losses to both Purdue on Saturday and Wisconsin on Nov. 21 would make it almost certain the Cats would miss out on the Big Ten Championship Game. Win both games, and the road to Indianapolis looks even more likely.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Yes, there is. ESPN’s Football Power Index had NU’s chances of making the four-team College Football Playoff at a whopping 2.3 percent. Wisconsin still remains the Big Ten West team with the best probability of making the CFP at 40.2 percent, but it’s likely those odds will change based on how each side performs this weekend. 

Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Clemson stand as ESPN’s most likely teams to make the Playoff. The FPI also gives the Cats an 18.9 percent chance of winning the West; a 2.7 percent chance of winning the Big Ten; and a 92.6 percent chance of winning six games. 

Hello, sunshine: Bowl game projections

If a bowl season is played — an emphasis on the “if” as the pandemic worsens around the country — most media predictors project that NU will advance to its fourth bowl game in five years. 

Florida and Tennessee are two popular choices for predicted destinations: ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura had the Cats in Orlando at the Vrbo Citrus Bowl, while colleague Mark Schlabach and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm saw NU in the TransPerfect Music City Bowl in Nashville. Stadium’s Brett McMurphy predicted the Cats will return to the Outback Bowl in Tampa for the first time since 2015.  

What the rest of Northwestern’s schedule looks like from here

In short: There’s still a lot of football scheduled to play this season. As COVID-19 cases rise nationwide, it’s even up in the air if all these games will be played: This week’s postponement of four of the SEC’s seven games and Ohio State’s matchup — thus meaning that three of the top five teams in the AP Poll won’t play this weekend — showed yet again even stringent testing protocols can’t fully stop the virus.

NU has one foe from the East and four divisional opponents left on its calendar. After Purdue this weekend and Wisconsin next Saturday, the Cats will make the trip to East Lansing to play Michigan State, a team that showed promise in a win against Michigan on Oct. 31 but looked incredibly lackluster in a drubbing of a loss at Iowa on Nov. 7. 

The season will close out with a trip to Minnesota and then a home regular season finale against Illinois. What will happen over the next five games for the Cats — and around the conference — remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: It’ll be an entertaining race to the finish line.

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Twitter: @ellabrockway

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