Maize n Brew's U.M. Chicago has raised certain objections to my radical realignment proposal, particularly as it relates to the composition of the Midwestern Conference.
For one thing, he doesn't want the league to have a conference championship game. While I share U.M. Chicago's view in principle, I recognize the financial realities of the situation.
However, I initially found U.M. Chicago's other constructive criticism much more difficult to answer. He argued forcefully for Northwestern to be included in the Midwestern Conference instead of Miami (Ohio).
As dawn breaks through the purple haze overhanging Ryan Field, the question still lingers . . . will Northwestern be denied a spot in the Midwestern Conference?
U.M. Chicago's argument that the Wildcats belonged in the Midwestern Conference rather than in Conference U.S.A., coupled with Around the Oval's observation that "Miami doesn't really seem to see themselves as a football school," just about had me convinced that I should swap the two schools' league affiliations . . . but then I took a closer look at the facts and was persuaded that I got it right the first time.
As before, U.M. Chicago's case is well argued and laden with detail, so I encourage you to read his posting in its entirety. He concedes the geographic logic of moving Penn State to the Eastern Conference and agrees that Indiana deserves to be demoted, then goes on to write:
Quite reasonably, U.M. Chicago cites Northwestern's performance on the field from 1995 to 2005, pointing out that N.U. has won or shared three conference titles during those 11 seasons.
This is a fair basis for assessing the Wildcats' present capability as a football team, but it bears noting that, prior to 1995, Northwestern had endured 23 consecutive losing seasons, including four winless campaigns (0-10-1 in 1978, 0-11 in 1980, 0-11 in 1981, and 0-11 in 1989) and three one-win years (1-10 in 1976, 1-10 in 1977, and 1-10 in 1979). The Wildcats are much better than they used to be, but they've still had just four winning records in the last 34 years.
A couple of months before this headline was published, another newspaper reported that Dewey defeated Truman.
Since New Year's Day 1949, the Wildcats have attended five bowl games . . . and lost them all. Northwestern fell to Southern California in the 1996 Rose Bowl, to Tennessee in the 1997 Citrus Bowl, to Nebraska in the 2000 Alamo Bowl, to Bowling Green in the 2003 Motor City Bowl, and to U.C.L.A. in the 2005 Sun Bowl. The Wildcats' average margin of defeat in those five contests was 18.8 points and the Northwestern D surrendered 46.6 points per game in those five outings.
U.M. Chicago provides solid evidence for the proposition that the Wildcats have been competitive in the Big Ten over the course of the last 11 years. I neither dispute nor discount the facts he cites and I have considerable respect for the ruggedness of the conference. Nevertheless, I see little cause for confidence that Northwestern would dominate Conference U.S.A. as I have constituted it.
Let us look at how the Wildcats have performed in non-conference outings (including bowl games) over the course of the span U.M. Chicago cites:
1996 - 2-2
1997 - 2-2
1998 - 3-1
1999 - 2-1
2000 - 2-2
2001 - 2-1
2002 - 2-2
2003 - 2-3
2004 - 1-3
2005 - 2-2
That's 22-21 with three seasons above .500 in out-of-conference contests. While U.M. Chicago claims that N.U. "shows no signs of slowing down," the Wildcats have not posted a winning record in non-Big Ten games since 2001 and they have finished their non-conference slate with a losing record in two of the last three seasons. I have yet to be sold on the notion that Northwestern would be dominant in another league.
Still, that isn't altogether fair, because those non-conference opponents came from a variety of other regions and affiliations. Let us look, therefore, at the teams with which Northwestern has been lumped together under my radical realignment proposal.
My "new look" version of Conference U.S.A. might as well be called "the Smartypants Conference," as it consists of Baylor, Duke, Indiana, Kentucky, Northwestern, Rice, Rutgers, Stanford, Temple, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest.
Conference U.S.A., where field goals count the value of pi and it sometimes takes a slide rule to determine whether to go for two.
U.M. Chicago boldly declares, "Try to tell me with a straight face that Northwestern wouldn't rule this conference with an iron fist." I will make that attempt quite happily and, I hope, persuasively . . . and not just by noting that 10 of the other 11 members of the intellectually upscale league have won bowl games more recently than the 1948 season.
During the period upon which U.M. Chicago relies as evidence of the Wildcats' quality as a football team, Northwestern has twice tangled with Wake Forest . . . and lost both times, falling 28-27 in 1996 and losing 27-20 in 1997.
During that same span, the Wildcats have squared off with Rice . . . and lost, coming up short in a 40-34 ballgame in Evanston in 1997. While Northwestern avenged that loss to the Owls a year later (23-14 in Houston), there is little reason to believe the Wildcats would be dominant against teams that have played with and beaten them during the period of their resurgence.
Furthermore, while the transitive property is of dubious applicability in college football, some significance might be attached to the fact that, during the 2005 campaign, Northwestern lost to Arizona State in Tempe by a 52-21 margin, while Rutgers fell to the Sun Devils in Phoenix by a final score of 45-40.
That may tell us little about how a game between the Wildcats and the Scarlet Knights would go, but it would at least appear to be something of a stretch to claim that the State University of New Jersey would be unable to give Northwestern a challenge.
Dawg Sports is contractually obligated to accompany all references to Rutgers with a photograph of Kristin Davis.
Also in the refurbished Conference U.S.A. is Northwestern's fellow former Big Ten institution, Indiana. There is no question that the Wildcats have gotten the better of the Hoosiers consistently since 1995; during that period, N.U. is 6-2 against I.U. Nevertheless, I don't know that "dominance" is quite the word that I would apply to the Indiana-Northwestern rivalry.
The Wildcats have won the last three series meetings by margins of four (41-37 in 2002), six (37-31 in 2003), and seven (31-24 in 2004), which suggests that the series is fairly competitive. Before that, the Hoosiers had beaten the Wildcats in two of the previous three years, by such convincing final scores as 34-17 in 1999 and 56-21 in 2001.
Aside from Indiana, the only team in my version of Conference U.S.A. to have played Northwestern consistently over the last 11 years is Duke. The Blue Devils and the Wildcats have met eight times in the last decade, with N.U. winning seven of those contests. Surely that suggests dominance, right?
Well, maybe, maybe not. While the Wildcats certainly won some blowouts against the Blue Devils, they also found themselves in some serious scrapes, as well. Northwestern beat Duke by four points in 1997, by three points in 1999, and by five points in 2002. The series record over the course of the last 10 years easily could be 4-4.
In 1998, the Blue Devils traveled to Evanston to face an N.U. team that had gone 25-12 in its previous 37 outings . . . and they beat the Wildcats like redheaded stepchildren, returning home to Durham with a 44-10 victory. That hardly sounds like a squad Northwestern would dominate, even if N.U. got the better of Duke more often than not.
Dude, you lost to Duke. End of argument.
In the end, then, does Northwestern truly stand head and shoulders above the squads with which I have affiliated it in the modified version of Conference U.S.A.? More to the point, are the Wildcats more deserving of inclusion in a major conference than Miami (Ohio)?
On the strength of Northwestern's last 11 years of football, U.M. Chicago says they are. Here are the results of all of the games played between the Wildcats and the RedHawks during that period:
1999 - Miami (Ohio) 28, Northwestern 3
2003 - Miami (Ohio) 44, Northwestern 14
Since the Wildcats have started playing good football, they are 0-3 against the RedHawks and Northwestern's defense has surrendered 34 points per game to Miami. Only one of those games---the one that came in what was assuredly the finest season of N.U. football in the last half-century---was even a close contest.
Because I don't want the comments section flooded with questions about what became of her, here is your regularly-scheduled Mary-Louise Parker picture.
The facts seem clear enough. Based upon Northwestern's performance on the field in head-to-head competition, it is apparent that the Wildcats might win, but N.U. would not dominate, my version of Conference U.S.A.
Moreover, the RedHawks have proven themselves more deserving of a major conference membership than the Wildcats, whose claim to being the "better" team, much like Matt Leinart's similar assertion after the Rose Bowl, is rebutted by a quick glance at the scoreboard.