College Football’s academic-minded competitive climate

Closing Time

After seven and a half years, LTP is coming to an end. Our final post will be this Wednesday, January 15  and we’ve been spending our final week going in to memory mode and the big picture on all things Northwestern Athletics.  If you’d like to read the post announcing why I felt it was time to close you can read Closing Time part one here and part two of “Closing Time” here. Please note, we’ll be leaving the site up so you can access the archives and all of the content that started in June of 2007.

The academic-minded competitive climate
Perspective is highly underrated. One of the most simple things I’ve learned as I’ve matured is the simple fact that most people don’t see the world the way I see it. Candidly, it is one of the things that bonds so many of us here – we have one aspect of that prism for which  we see things pretty darn clearly, that purple filtered lens of life.

During my years, I’ve been blessed to watch from the sidelines, an amazing educational foundation that my wife and her father started back in the early 2000s. It’s called the Schuler Scholar Program and transforms the lives of hundreds of kids each year from places like Waukegan, Round Lake, North Chicago and nine or ten more where there are predominantly minority junior high kids with great promise and limited resources who would become the first in their families to ever attend college. The program which starts in eighth grade results in their students getting free rides to the country’s most select schools.  One of my favorite stats is that Waukegan High School, about eight years ago, had three students attend Stanford, more than any other Illinois high school.

Early on I was tapped on to help interview (before they built out the organization with the right people) prospective students and their parents. I’ll never forget meeting this one mom and her amazing daughter. At the time the program started, several high school students at various grade levels were selected and this girl was a junior. They were both lights out smart, but based on their cultural background they had a perception that  a relatively small state school had a better reputation than some of the top tier schools that were courting her. I realized the cultural disconnect right there. Just because I look at Middlebury or Vanderbilt or Amherst or Brown as a better school than several schools that I won’t pick on here, it doesn’t mean that’s how others see the world.

This applies to Northwestern football all the time in recruiting. I was recently talking to a former Northwestern star player who is very smart. We talked about this phenomenon and what it’s like to look at schools as a 16-year-old. He’s a guy you’d think would be the poster child for getting the “40-year decision” yet, he was talking about sizing up West Virginia versus Northwestern. It sounds nuts to NU fans, especially alumni who instantly think “why wouldn’t you come to the better academic school”? He told me while his parents were hands-off about his decision that it was a no-brainer to them, and to him the decision, as much as he knew it should be about the whole package, was overly tilted towards football.

This may be the longest preamble caveat to the point of the post I’ve done (and that is saying something) but with a few days left of blogging at LTP hopefully you can forgive me. It is important context because I often subset Northwestern’s competition in to the like-minded academic set. This is very much a 35-year-old plus view of the world and that’s the disconnect. What I’m about to write is NOT how the overwhelming majority of 16-year-olds think. They think about things like cool uniforms and branded swag, how attractive the girls are on the day they visit and likability of the coach and the players. The following constructs are rationalization tools for many of us, but enough of us think this way I thought it was worth segmenting out.

As the ongoing conversation of “the Northwestern way” plays out, it is clear that NU will continue to prioritize academics. So, considering the actual academic criteria for each football program is black box mystery stuff, these are well-educated guesses to the competitive set. I was conveniently selective and used US News & World Report Rankings from 2014 as a starting point. However, I used my own bias to whittle the list down to remove some ((#29) Michigan, (#23) UCLA, (t-#25) USC, (t-#25) UVA , (#20) Cal) and (#30) UNC for various reasons. Whether it is an unfair advantage of powerful history (see Michigan, USC) or the fact they’re not really academic-minded at all when it comes to football (see: Cal, who prior to last season was on the warning list for APR ranking and UNC that is embroiled in an academic fraud scandal).  You can debate who’s in and who’s out, but below is my list and the rationale for why they are a part of the competitive set:

  • Stanford (t-4) – The current gold standard of the like-minded set, David Shaw’s team slipped up this year (8-5) after a nice run that included four straight BCS bowls and double-digit win seasons. The ‘Cats open the 2015 season against Stanford and in general have lost way more than they’ve won in recent head to head recruiting battles.
  • Duke (#8) – The newcomer to the party, David Cutcliffe has finally put it together with a 10-win 2013 and 9-win 2014 season after slogging through five straight losing seasons. NU gets the bad timing award as Duke reappears on the ‘Cats schedule in 2015.
  • Northwestern (#13) – No explanation needed here.
  • Vanderbilt (t-16) – The post-James Franklin era has not been kind. Penn State’s head coach made some hay in three seasons in Nashville winning 9 games in each of his final two seasons there, matching the all-time high in single season win totals. Derek Mason suffered through an 0-8 SEC season and brutal 3-9 year. It is one of the only like-minded academic schools whose arrow is down worse than NU’s.
  • Notre Dame (t-16) – The Fighting Irish fans are starting to get very restless with Brian Kelly. Just two seasons removed from a national title appearance, the Irish returned to 8-5 and finished the season with a four-game losing streak before winning their bowl game. Obviously NU contributed to this rough finish.  The Irish have become a direct competitor in recent years far moreso than before and the head-to-head win was a nice one for the ‘Cats, but 8-5 and a win over LSU sure looks better than our 5-7.  The arrow is down in South Bend, but the ‘Cats and NU seem to be on a parallel course, with NU’s fall post 2012 being much more precipitous.
  • Rice (#19) – Don’t look now, but the once laughingstock Rice Owls (remember that win in Houston in front of 15,000 or so fans?) have put together three straight winning seasons, including a 10-win season in 2013. Yes, the Owls play in the inferior C-USA, but Houston has been a huge recruiting area for NU and the better Rice gets the more competition we’ll have over academic-minded Texans.
  • Wake Forest (t-#27) – The Demon Deacons are the answer to the question “what  Power 5 Conference team would let a long-tenured coach lose five consecutive seasons in years nine through 13. Jim Grobe did just that. New head coach Dave Clawson finished a miserable first season (3-9) and the ‘Cats 1996 nemesis is at the bottom of this entire pile.
  • Boston College (#31) – The Eagles are a bit of the J-curve in our set. After an impressive 12-year run of consecutive bowl games, and a remarkable 8-straight bowl wins at one point, the Frank Spaziani era kicked in and things went south, thankfully right when NU’s series with BC resumed. Since then Steve Addazio as led the Eagles to back to back 7-5 regular seasons and the bowl game brigade is back on. While some NU alums might scoff at the notion of BC being on this list, the ‘Cats and Eagles consistently compete for New England and New Jersey-area recruits.

There are a ton of factors that play in to this peer set when it comes to the pitch. Location and weather come in to play (advantage Stanford), facilities (advantage Stanford, Notre Dame), recent history (advantage Notre Dame, Stanford) and gameday atmosphere (huge advantage Notre Dame with most others falling in to the not-so-good category.

It’s important to note that if you go back to say, 2008-2012, Northwestern was at the very top of this list, with Stanford having just recently catching – and passing the ‘Cats. Stanford was not very good in Harbaugh’s first two seasons (2007, 2008) posted an 8-win 2009 and then broke through with the 12-1 2010 season. The program ran away from us at that point. But, everyone else, we seemed to be comfortably ahead of until Notre Dame’s 2012 national title appearance.  Now, only Wake Forest and Vanderbilt are below us in terms of current arrow-up/arrow-down assessment in my world.

Again, a typical Northwestern recruit doesn’t just go after these schools. There is usually Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State in the mix if they’re from the East of Midwest. A kid from the West will have Pac-12 schools in the mix and Texas natives usually have Texas schools in the running. However, when you’re playing the big time football meets big time academic card to parents of recruits, we’ve got some ground to get back in a hurry.

Many of you challenged the notion that I thought Ohio State winning the national title would give NU a benefit. I believe it does when you can pair “best conference” with the NU angle of the best of both worlds academic and football competition. Clearly, it will take more than one Ohio State title to turn the tide, but it is a start in the right direction that could benefit the ‘Cats unique angle. I’m curious to get your take on the competitive set and where we stand and what it means.

  • Wildcat ’08

    My tag line of this game was #FitzWouldHavePunted watching two coaches playing to win until Oregon backed down at a critical time. I think coach H will be regretting that decision. Great day for big 10

    • LTP

      Moneyball ‘Cats. I want that so badly.

  • escapedfromEVil

    I sometimes think the academic prestige angle is overrated. When I look at the Big Ten, last I checked every school in it is at a minimum one of the top 100 universities in the world. They all have good job placement rates, etc. With the exception of Nebraska they’re all one of the 60 or so top research universities in the country (members of the AAU…and Nebraska was kicked out of the group via a VERY political process).

    Next, assuming a school wants to make the CFP, etc, you need guys that have the raw talent to be in the NFL. Does telling that recruit that he’ll be able to intern at Deloitte matter when what he wants is to play for the Broncos? Did Andrew Luck pick Stanford because it was Stanford or because Jim Harbaugh is a master at developing quarterbacks?

    Right now, If I was evaluating my program, I’d be less concerned that only Vandy and Wake Forrest are behind us, and more concerned that suddenly Illinois is ahead of us (another very good academic school…so good that in state politicians are concerned not enough kids from Illinois can get in).

    • LTP

      I think you nailed it. I tried to make the point that the academic-minded competition is as much an alumni perspective as anything. I believe you are spot on in the concern about Illinois. I will tell you that the NU For Life program is tops in the country and the subset program that NU football has is truly one of a kind and has made a huge impact on recruiting.

  • Icehockeycat

    Last day, last post here. It has been a ride!

    In terms of academics, you have to also look at the programs. If a player wants an engineering degree, for example, Wisco, Michigan and Illinois are arguably better choices than NU. Couple that with the football facilities, etc., and getting these “smart” kids is actually a challenge for us.

    My girl is going through this for hockey right now. She would pick Wisco over Harvard for example if it is offered due to 1) Wisco engineering better than Harvard 2) full ride scholly (no scholly for Ivy’s) and 3) women’s hockey facilities, coaching and tradition. It is almost a no brainer for her, and she falls into the “academic” minded set.

  • I love this discussion and I could talk about this subject all day. Reminds me of the recent SI article “Revenge of the Nerds” (September 2013?) which profiled Stanford football but also gave us a nod.

  • NU’06er

    For what it’s worth LTP, I don’t actually challenge the notion that NU could get some benefit from a rise in B1G prestige due to tOSU winning the national title. Rather, I’m unconvinced the benefits aren’t overtaken by the benefits that also accrue to conference peers whose recruiting pitch is more directly helped by the increase in B1G prestige. In other words, the B1G becoming “THE” conference to play for might theoretically help us recruit against Stanford or Duke, but at a cost of Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, etc. becoming much stronger as well — and viewed in that light the “net gain” feels like a pyrrhic victory at best. Essentially I’m saying: How much did the SEC’s dominance over the last decade help Vanderbilt as opposed to making Vanderbilt’s schedule too murderous to navigate with a recruiting pool limited by academic restrictions? Without taking the time to look it up (a potentially ill-advised idea), I’m guessing that during that stretch, the Vanderbilt teams which did manage to go 6-6 or 7-5 were better than the average 6-6 or 7-5 team throughout the rest of college football and could take down 7-5 opponents from weaker conferences in second and third-tier bowl games — but Vanderbilt also probably has a lot of 0-8 or 1-7 ledgers against the LSU’s, Alabama’s, Georgia’s and Florida’s of the world in that time frame.
    I’m glad tOSU’s win means we now won’t have to hear griping about how the B1G hasn’t competed for a national title in a decade unless and until another 10 years pass without a nationally prominent team. But with that feat accomplished, I think it’s generally more in NU’s interests to have Michigan and Ohio State be beatable opponents going forward rather than so deep they are both making the college football playoff field at the same time.

  • wildcat79

    Good luck and thanks again. It has been fun.
    One more for the road ….it’s all about the quality of our QB play if we have the best QB in the peer group we will be the best team