B1G 5: In the year of the unexplainable, why can't Northwestern upset OSU and reach Playoff?
1. The B1G Reality
Here we are, after all the questions and consternation of a truncated Big Ten season, easing into a familiar, cozy spot at the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State is here, and some other poor sod is around to take a beating.
Only this time, the winner more than likely advances to the College Football Playoff.
That’s right, everyone. Northwestern will show up in Indianapolis with a chance to play in the big show. Seriously.
“I’m sure we’re going to be underdogs by like 70,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald joked.
I mean, I think he was joking. Because frankly, he’s not that far off the number.
If the Wildcats were to do the unthinkable and beat Ohio State this weekend, it will be the greatest upset in major college championship game history.
And Fitz, for his part, is playing and yukking it up like never before. His little ol’ Northwestern overachievers, the guys everyone pats on the head and shoos to the side while the main event strolls to the stage, are just happy to be here, thank you.
“They’re a top 4 team,” he said of Ohio State. “If I had a vote, I’d vote them No.2”
See what Fitz did there? He’s not that loopy. He still understands it’s Alabama’s world – and everyone is just dreading the moment when one of them has to play the Tide in the national championship game.
But enough of that inevitable. It’s time to address – and really, to celebrate – just how close Northwestern is to a remarkable accomplishment.
Remember in 2016-17 when the Northwestern basketball team reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time and closet Wildcats fans emerged loud and proud — and the fun little run lasted a week and Northwestern hasn’t had a winning season since?
Yeah, well, this potential feel-good Northwestern story blows that straight out of Lake Michigan.
Northwestern has been to the Rose Bowl, the Wildcats have won double-digit games and Fitzgerald has become one of the most-sought coaches in college football and the NFL because of the way he runs his program and wins with talent better suited for the Ivy League.
But none of that would compare to beating heavy favorite Ohio State and advancing to the CFP. Nothing.
Northwestern has no business being in position to play in the College Football Playoff. They don’t recruit remotely close to the level of CFP mainstays (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State), they recruit players whose No. 1 priority isn’t the NFL (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The closest Northwestern got to a 5-star recruit is Hunter Johnson, the former Clemson quarterback who left once another 5-star quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) showed up on campus and it was clear he wasn’t going to play.
Johnson played some last season at Northwestern, but because of injuries and ineffective play, was recruited over when Fitzgerald signed grad transfer Peyton Ramsey from Indiana.
Ramsey left Indiana because he wasn’t going to sit behind electric freshman Michael Penix Jr., and wanted to finish his college career with a chance to play. He’s solid (9 TD, 6 INT), just like tailback Drake Anderson and wideout Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (RCB, for those who follow all things Purple) are solid. And tough guy linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher.
A team full of solid.
You know what a team full of solid gets you in the SEC? A $22 million buyout.
Now, think about this: a Northwestern win in the Big Ten Championship Game vaults the Wildcats past unbeaten Cincinnati and potential unbeaten Pac-12 champion USC, and 1-loss SEC contender Texas A&M.
Past SEC heavyweights Georgia and Florida, and past Big 12 title contenders Oklahoma and Iowa State. Even past unbeaten Coastal Carolina, which for some reason, sits at No.9 in the CFP poll despite 1 Power 5 win all season – against a Kansas team that hasn’t won all season and has lost 13 straight and 17 of 18.
But I digress from the utterly laughable idea that Coastal Carolina is a top-10 team.
Northwestern, by beating Ohio State, would make the biggest final week move in the history of the CFP poll – from No. 15 to No. 4 – to earn 1 of those 4 coveted and controversial spots.
Only there wouldn’t be anything controversial about a team that would have the best win of anyone not named Clemson or Notre Dame.
Better than Alabama’s best win (Texas A&M), or Texas A&M (Florida), or Iowa State (Oklahoma), or Cincinnati (SMU). The only team outside Clemson and Notre Dame that would have a better win would be Florida – if it beats Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
“We’ll try to put together a good week and get ourselves prepared,” Fitzgerald said.
In this year of the unexplainable, why not finish with the improbable.
All the way to the College Football Playoff.
2. A record-breaking moment
We’ve taken Ohio State for granted. Or maybe we’re just so sick of the success, we’re numb to it.
But the Buckeyes are on the verge of accomplishing something never done before in the storied Big Ten: 4 consecutive outright conference championships.
With a win over Northwestern, Ohio State not only earns a CFP bid but becomes the most successful senior class in Big Ten history.
The Buckeyes are 43-4 over the last 4 seasons, including an unthinkable 30-2 in league play. Only 2 strange blowout road losses to Iowa and Purdue have kept Ohio State from shutting out the rest of the conference over 4 seasons.
Look, I don’t want to make the rest of the Big Ten feel too inferior – especially when we’ve all begun to believe Northwestern might just stun the whole damn planet – but if we take this historic Ohio State run back to the day Urban Meyer stepped on campus in 2012, it’s downright devastating.
In the 9 seasons under Meyer and Ryan Day, Ohio State in 104-10 overall and 70-4 in the Big Ten.
If it makes Northwestern feel any better, all 4 of Ohio State’s Big Ten losses since 2012 (Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa, Purdue) have been as double-digit favorites.
OK, so Northwestern isn’t a 70-point dog like Fitz wants you to believe (it’s really a 20.5).
It only feels that way.
3. The waiting game
If Michigan plays this weekend, if the Wolverines play the hottest team in the Big Ten and avoid another COVID cancelation, what in the world happens if Iowa does what Iowa more than likely will do?
What happens at Michigan when the man who was hired to right all wrongs in the land of Go Blue loses to white-hot Iowa and falls to 11-11 in his last 22 games?
People, those are Brady Hoke numbers.
If Jim Harbaugh’s name were Hoke or Rodriguez or Smith or Jones, he’d be on his way out.
Instead, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel is treating Harbaugh like a coach who has won multiple championships. Not one who hasn’t won his own division.
Think about this: Harbaugh is among the top 4 paid coaches in college football ($8 million a year), and is winless vs. Ohio State and 3-3 vs. Michigan State. That’s 3-8 in the biggest games of the season.
You’ve heard the other numbers of futility vs. ranked teams, the top 10 and as an underdog. They’re hideous.
Yet for some reason, Manuel is all but begging Harbaugh to stay. Author John U. Bacon tweeted last week that Michigan has offered Harbaugh a contract with a lower base salary and buyout, and that – I swear I’m not making this up – Harbaugh can “accept, negotiate or decline” the offer.
The next thing you know, Manuel will be slipping a note under Harbaugh’s office door that says, “Do you want to coach here? Check Yes or No.”
Imagine if Dan Mullen were 0-5 vs. Georgia and 3-3 vs. Florida State. Think the Florida administration would ask him to please, when you have a chance, make a decision?
What world are we living in right now?
Harbaugh was a perfect fit at Stanford, and was a terrific coach in the NFL who won playoff games (not many coaches can say that).
But, by Michigan standards, he has been a failure in Ann Arbor. Another loss to Iowa will only confirm it.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Ohio State: How is what the Big Ten did for Ohio State any different than what the ACC did for Clemson and Notre Dame? It eliminated another potential obstacle on the road to the CFP. Someone ask Florida if that means anything.
2. Indiana: If you’re IU, what are you playing for? The Oaken Bucket just got canceled (again). Thanks, Big Ten, for changing the rules with a game to play.
3. Iowa: Six straight wins becomes 7 in a row after a win over Michigan, and 8 in a row after a win over an SEC team outside the 4 in the conference that matter.
4. Northwestern: We’re all Northwestern this weekend. Seriously. If there really were football gods, they’d be piping mad at Big Ten officials for clearing a path for heavyweight Ohio State.
5. Penn State: Soak this in: The team that began the season with 5 straight losses is now in the top 5 of the conference. Hey, it’s 2020.
6. Minnesota: The Gophers have been down 30-plus players multiple times this season, yet somehow are 3-3. This might be P.J. Fleck’s best coaching job.
7. Wisconsin: COVID has ravaged the season, and QB Graham Mertz never really responded from a poor game against Northwestern. Forget everything else, the Axe is in front of you. Go get it.
8. Rutgers: I feel like I say this week after week, but Greg Schiano is making this happen with – how can I say this? – a roster that isn’t as talented as a top 25 FCS roster. Were it not for Tom Allen, Schiano is runaway coach of the year.
9. Maryland: I feel like the Terps are almost there under Mike Locksley, to the point where significant games will be played in November. Time to turn those strong recruiting classes into a breakout 2021 season.
10. Michigan State: The defense doesn’t play like a typical Mel Tucker D, and the quarterback isn’t going to make game-turning plays. Other than that, what else did Tucker get out of Year 1?
11. Michigan: Remember when QB Joe Milton looked like a poor man’s Cam Newton in the season-opener? Let’s be honest: Harbaugh’s aura of what could be (what exactly could be, by the way?) is the only thing keeping him employed at Michigan.
12. Illinois: Champagne taste, beer budget program. Stop trying to recreate the wheel with a high-priced retread. Go get a young, charismatic dude who can recruit. Or get 56-year-old program builder Lance Leopold, who for some reason, is languishing in Buffalo (no offense. Bulls).
13. Nebraska: We can talk about recruiting and culture and every other reason Nebraska is sitting behind Illinois in the Big Ten. At the end of the day, it falls at the feet of Scott Frost. And that’s a gut punch to just about everyone involved with Big Red.
14. Purdue: A brutal season full of COVID cancellations — including the Bucket game for the 2nd time — and currently riding a 4-game losing streak by a combined 27 points.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Nebraska at Rutgers (+6.5)
- Purdue (+9.5) at Indiana
- Minnesota (+12) at Wisconsin
- Michigan at Iowa (-14)
- Illinois at Penn State (-15)
Last week: 2-1 (2 cancellations)