Football: For Northwestern, it’s Dallas, Detroit or the great beyond

Jonah Rosenblum

Northwestern’s 31-17 loss to then-No. 11 Michigan State on Saturday dropped it to 6-6 on the season, but have no fear Wildcats fans, the team still appears bowl-bound.

The Experts:

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, of Big Ten Blog fame, predicted that the Cats will take on a Big 12 team in the TicketCity Bowl, despite playing in that exact same bowl last season. NU lost to Texas Tech 45-38 in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 1.

Jerry Palm, in his bowl projections for CBSSports.com, predicted that NU would take on Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. That game would be played at Detroit’s Ford Field on Dec. 27. The Rockets went 8-4 this year, including three straight wins to round out the regular season, and they nearly beat Ohio State in Columbus on Sept. 10.

The Three Most Likely Bowls:

  1. Little Caesars Pizza Bowl – While Christmas in Detroit might not seem like the most appealing option for NU fans, the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl offers the Cats a tremendous opportunity to break their 62-year bowl drought, as they will match up against a Mid-American Conference team. NU is 15-5 in its last 20 matchups with non-conference opponents. The Cats have also won nine straight games against MAC schools and are 16-8-1 all-time against MAC teams.
  2. TicketCity Bowl – Bowls usually try to avoid repeats, so it would seem unlikely that the Cats would be headed for Dallas again. The issue is do the organizers of the TicketCity Bowl really want to select a Purdue team that lost to Rice earlier this season or an Illinois team that just fired its coach over NU? Given how weak the Big 12 has become, this could be a favorable bowl for the Cats as well, as they would likely face a Marshall team that barely made it to bowl eligibility. Marshall barely beat Rice earlier this season and got pummeled by teams like Ohio and Tulsa, which certainly bodes well for NU.
  3. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl – If the Cats get dropped out of the Big Ten bowl picture, meaning they get jumped by both Illinois and Purdue, or the Big Ten fails to get a second team into a BCS bowl game, they will be thrown into the general bowl picture, hoping to fill a slot left empty by other conferences. NU could easily end up in San Francisco, filling in for Army or the Pacific-12 Conference. That Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matchup would most likely pit the Cats against another fill-in team.

The Three Contenders:

  1. Northwestern – The Cats won four of five games to finish up their 2011 regular season, including a monumental win at then-No. 9 Nebraska. That win is more impressive than any that the Boilermakers or Fighting Illini pulled off. NU also boasts a share of the Chicago market, and athletic director Jim Phillips tends to do a good job of selling the Cats to bowl representatives. Sophomore do-it-all Kain Colter and senior quarterback Dan Persa are two extremely marketable players, arguably more dynamic than anyone the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini have to offer. NU’s first issue is it lost to Illinois on Oct. 1, meaning the Fighting Illini own that tiebreaker, to some extent. Its second issue is that it went to the TicketCity Bowl last season, so it might get dropped down as a result.
  2. Purdue – Unlike the streaky Cats, the Boilermakers never could catch fire this season. In fact, they never were able to compile two straight wins. Yet, wins over a then-ranked Illinois squad and Ohio State were impressive, helping make up for an early-season loss at Rice. Purdue is also an attractive option, because it hasn’t gone bowling since 2007, so the Boilermakers would presumably bring an eager fanbase to any bowl game. The Boilermakers would certainly edge the Fighting Illini, both because they beat them earlier this season and because Illinois is a hot mess at this point.
  3. Illinois – The Fighting Illini are like the unattractive girl that no one wants to bring to prom. They’re 6-6 and rearing for a bowl game, but coming off six straight losses and the firing of coach Ron Zook, it’s unclear why anyone would want Illinois. To be fair, four of the Fighting Illini’s six losses came by ten points or less, and you can’t forget their six wins to open the season, including victories over NU and then-No. 22 Arizona State, but at the end of the day, Illinois will likely be picked after both NU and Purdue.

The One Event This All Hinges On:

All of the current predictions are based on two Big Ten teams making BCS bowl games. Unfortunately for NU, that might not happen.

Currently, Michigan sits at No. 16 in the BCS standings, two spots behind where it needs to finish in order to qualify as a second BCS team from the Big Ten. The winner of the Wisconsin-Michigan State matchup in the Big Ten Championship game will be the conference’s first BCS representative, taking part in the Rose Bowl. The loser is unlikely to make a BCS bowl game, according to Brian Bennett of ESPN.

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