SI Top 10: Northwestern Storms Up Rankings With Stifling Win Over Wisconsin

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It is time to praise and appraise Northwestern, the American anomaly and current near-lock to make the Big Ten Conference championship game for the second time in three years.

In a season of big scoring, the 5-0 Wildcats are built to strangle opponents with defense and win methodical battles of field position. The national scoring average is 29.6 points per game per team, within range of the all-time record of 30, and here is Northwestern plodding along at 25.8—and currently undefeated.

Wisconsin went into Ryan Field averaging 47 points per game—with an admittedly small sample size, having played twice—and scored seven against the the Purple. Not one Badgers drive made the red zone; their only touchdown came on a 49-yard bomb in the first quarter. After committing just one turnover in two games, Wisconsin had five Saturday, including the first three interceptions of hotshot freshman quarterback Graham Mertz’s career.

For the fourth time in five games, Northwestern pitched a second-half shutout. The longer the game goes, the stronger the defense gets.

Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Brandon Joseph (16) gestures after intercepting against the Wisconsin Badgers during the first half at Ryan Field

This is a quintessential Pat Fitzgerald victory: gritty, resilient and perfectly happy to win a slog of a game that ends with just a few more plays made by his team than by the opponent. But it didn’t make sense for Northwestern to be a one-touchdown underdog—not before the game, and not after.

“We expected this,” Fitzgerald said. “This doesn’t surprise anybody in our program. This wasn’t an upset tonight in our locker room. We fully expected it.”

We got Feisty Fitz, Chip On The Shoulder Fitz, Dare To Disrespect Us Fitz postgame. When ESPN analyst Joe Galloway said earlier in the week that the Wildcats had “a bunch of Rece Davises running around," that became instant Northwestern bulletin-board material.

“That really ticked our guys off, I’m not going to lie,” Fitzgerald said. "I thought it was incredibly disrespectful. And it’s not the first time.”

After the disrespect comes the respect. How should Northwestern be ranked?

The SI Top Ten slotted the Wildcats at No. 9 last week, while the AP had the Wildcats 19th and coaches 20th. This week they take a significant move up—and based on strength of schedule, perhaps they should be even higher.

Ohio State’s 5-0 is built against Big Ten teams with a combined record of 6-12. Northwestern’s 5-0 is built against Big Ten teams with a combined record of 10-9. The Buckeyes have name brand and offensive style points … but they’ve played one decent team thus far.

Ultimately, though, those two teams are on a path to settle it on the field Dec. 19 in Indianapolis. Just don’t go chalking it up as an easy win for Ohio State.

Now on to the Top Ten:

1. Alabama

Last game: Beat Kentucky, 63-3
Next game: Auburn Saturday

Even by Alabama standards, that was a vicious woodshed whipping of the Wildcats. The Crimson Tide outgained the Wildcats by 330 yards and let the reserves do most of the work in the second half. Nick Saban’s team has given up three points total in its last two games. Now comes what should be a bloodlust game for ‘Bama. Auburn knocked the Tide out of the College Football Playoff a year ago—and while the Tigers are playing better in recent weeks, they’re going to be considerable underdogs in Tuscaloosa.

2. Notre Dame

Last game: Beat Boston College, 45-31, Nov. 14
Next game: At North Carolina Friday

After a week to rest and heal some bodies, the Fighting Irish go into an interesting Black Friday game in Chapel Hill. This is a good quarterback matchup, with Ian Book playing the best football of his life (nearly 750 yards total offense the last two games) against Tar Heels gunslinger Sam Howell (leads the ACC in pass efficiency, Trevor Lawrence included). The difference: Notre Dame also has a defense; UNC not so much.

3. Clemson

Last game: Lost to Notre Dame, 47-40, Nov. 7
Next game: Pittsburgh Saturday

It will now be more than a month between games for Trevor Lawrence, after the bizarre late postponement of the Florida State game Saturday morning for COVID-19 issues. Florida State reportedly balked at playing the Tigers after one of their offensive linemen tested positive after arriving in Tallahassee and traveling with the team. Clemson clearly was not happy with the decision. This is life in 2020, when nothing is guaranteed and games can evaporate at any time. Presumably, Lawrence will still remember how the whole quarterback thing works when he finally gets to play again.

4. Ohio State

Last game: Beat Indiana, 42-35
Next game: at Illinois Saturday

As my colleague Ross Dellenger wrote Saturday, the victory over the Hoosiers—while significant—was another example of Ohio State failing to finish like a dominant team. Absolutely give credit to Indiana, which is a legitimate team, but the Buckeyes have a defense that is incapable thus far of shutting the door on opponents. Giving up 491 passing yards, the most since 1985, will let some doubts creep in.

5. Cincinnati

Last game: Beat UCF, 36-33
Next game: at Temple Saturday

The Bearcats passed their biggest test of the season against the Knights, falling behind 14-3 early and 25-22 in the fourth quarter before taking command. It was another big performance from quarterback Desmond Ridder, who piled up nearly 400 yards total offense and four total touchdowns in leading the multiple comebacks. Luke Fickell made things interesting with some weird decisions in the final two minutes, but it all worked out for the strongest Group of Five playoff contender.

FORDE: Desmond Ridder's Rise Has Been Perfectly Off-Script

6. Northwestern

Last game: Beat Wisconsin, 17-7
Next game: at Michigan State Saturday

The Wildcats simply need to get past the Spartans, Minnesota and Illinois (combined record 5-9) to finish the Big Ten regular season undefeated for the first time in 25 years and an overall undefeated regular season for the first time … ever.

7. Texas A&M

Last game: Beat South Carolina, 48-3, on Nov. 7
Next game: LSU Saturday

The Aggies have basically disappeared due to two weeks of COVID-19 issues. Their readiness to resume play will be vital, because they might need some style points to remain in strong contention for a playoff spot. Their ranking ahead of Florida is based on the head-to-head win in October.

8. Florida

Last game: Beat Vanderbilt, 38-17
Next game: Kentucky Saturday

The Gators haven’t led any of their past three games after one quarter, but they’ve led by a bunch at the end. Florida has scored 38 or more points every game, maintaining Kyle Trask’s stature as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. The path to Atlanta and an SEC championship game against Alabama remains fairly smooth and straightforward.

9. BYU

Last game: Beat North Alabama, 66-14
Next game: San Diego State Dec. 12

In terms of playoff contention, the Cougars needed to beat Alabama. Or even UAB. Not North Alabama, an overmatched FCS school. That victory accomplished nothing, and unless another game is arranged between now and the season finale against the Aztecs, BYU is running out of quality-win opportunities.

10. Oregon

Last game: Beat UCLA, 38-35
Next game: at Oregon State Friday

The Ducks become the first Pac-12 team to crash the SI Top Ten after winning a ping-pong match with the Bruins. Oregon needs work defensively after giving up 462 yards and 35 points to a UCLA team playing its backup quarterback. But its own QB, Tyler Shough, had another big game (334 passing yards, three touchdowns). Best thing that could happen to Oregon is for Washington to continue rolling (2-0) and create a big game for the Pac-12 North championship on Dec. 12.

Also considered: Indiana, Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Miami, Colorado, Nevada