High on Northwestern? You Must Be High!
Given how badly things ended for Nebraska in 2012, it's understandable that they would find themselves towards the bottom of the national rankings. What's less understandable is how a team that the Huskers beat on the road and outpaced in the Big Ten by two games would be ranked seven to eight spots higher than the Big Red.
You don't have to argue against Northwestern being ranked. The Wildcats went 10-3. They beat some decent to good teams in Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Michigan State and Mississippi State. Still, in addition to losing at home to the Huskers, they fared worse against every common opponent except Iowa. They beat Iowa in Evanston by 11. Nebraska beat the Hawkeyes by 6 in Iowa City.
Opponent NE Margin NW Margin Difference
Penn State +9 -11 NE by 20
Minnesota +24 +8 NE by 16
Iowa +6 +11 NW by 5
Michigan +14 -7 NE by 21
Michigan State +4 +3 NE by 1
Head to Head +1 -1 NE by 1
Average NE by 9
Points of Contrast
Obviously, the Wildcats didn't outrank the Huskers based on their head-to-head game or even based on what happened against common opponents. It seems clear that any difference in the rankings is based on the rest of the schedule. Northwestern went 7-0 against the rest of their schedule and the Huskers went 4-4.
But here's the issue. Nebraska would be favored in all seven games Northwestern played against other teams. Whether it was Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, an FCS school, or all of those other teams with losing records that the Wildcats played, you'd expect the Huskers to come out on top.
As for the Husker losses, the Wildcats would not be favored against Georgia or Ohio State and they would not be expected to beat Wisconsin twice (probably not even once). Maybe Northwestern could have beaten UCLA on the road, but they would hardly have been much of a favorite to do so.
On balance, there's virtually no basis for believing that Northwestern was better. You could maybe make the argument that the Wildcats were playing better at the end of the year. Then again, do you think NW could really stay within 14 points of Georgia on a not quite neutral field? Me neither.
So this is a nice moment for the Wildcats, but that's all it is. Next season what goes around will come around. Northwestern will play Ohio State and Wisconsin while Nebraska gets a pass.