Football: Breaking down Northwestern’s bowl hopes

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor


With the college football season entering its final third, it’s time to take a look at where things stand for Northwestern’s chances of going bowling in December or early January. Coming off a 10-3 season and a victory in the Gator Bowl in 2013, few would have predicted that the team would miss out on a bowl game the next two seasons, but that is a real danger at this point. Here are the various bowl scenarios for the Wildcats with four games to play.

If NU goes 3-9 (The “blow it up” scenario): The Cats fall to Michigan, Notre Dame, Purdue and Illinois.
If that happens, NU will not come close to bowl eligibility and fan outrage at coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff will reach a fever pitch.

If NU goes 4-8 (The “disaster” scenario): NU loses three of its four remaining games, including at least one to the Purdue-Illinois cellar-dweller duo. They do not come close to a bowl game and have major questions to answer.

If NU goes 5-7 (The “Nerdwestern pays off” scenario): The Cats keep it close with two legacy programs but fall to both Notre Dame and Michigan. But Fitzgerald rallies the troops to finish the year with victories over the Boilermakers and Illinois.

This is where it gets interesting. Thanks to an increase in bowl games this year, there are 38 bowl games, not counting the national championship game, meaning 76 teams will receive bowl invitations. Last year there were 79 bowl-eligible teams, but in 2012 there were just 71. Currently, 49 FBS teams have reached at least six wins, with 21 more at five wins. Even if all 21 get to six wins, that leaves six more slots that must be filled. If fewer than 76 teams reach bowl eligibility, the NCAA has a series of criteria to fill the remaining slots. Several are unlikely to come into play, including a 6-6 team that loses its conference championship game to fall to 6-7. The final criterion is a 5-7 team who is in the top five among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, where NU is second (behind Duke, who is already bowl-eligible).

Although sneaking in the back door to a bowl game would leave a bad taste in fans’ mouths, particularly following a hypothetical second straight 5-7 season, the Cats surely wouldn’t care how they got there. If NU did wind up gaining bowl eligibility, the most likely destinations would be games unfilled by either Conference USA (which may lose Marshall to a “New Year’s Six” game) or the Mountain West (which may lose Colorado State to the same), possibly the Independence Bowl or the Cactus Bowl.

If NU goes 6-6 (The “finish strong” scenario): NU wins a tight one Saturday against Michigan, then hangs with Notre Dame until the fourth quarter but loses a heartbreaker in South Bend, Indiana. The Cats use the close loss as motivation to blow out Purdue and Illinois, getting to bowl eligibility. Under this scenario, NU could join Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers in the eligible pool of Big Ten teams (if the Cats lose to Michigan but beat Notre Dame on the way to 6-6, the Wolverines could also snatch a bowl berth and would likely be picked ahead of NU). That’s 10 or 11 bowl teams, with a 6-6 NU team along the lowest rungs of that ladder. That probably means a trip to the Detroit Bowl or the Heart of Dallas Bowl, depending on whether one or two conference teams get into the “New Year’s Six” games.

If NU goes 7-5 (The “Fitzgerald’s revenge” scenario): NU shakes off a blowout loss in Iowa City, Iowa to knock off Michigan, then goes on the road and shocks Notre Dame. Buoyed by a dose of national attention and renewed hope, the Cats trounce Purdue and Illinois to finish the year. In this scenario, the Cats are assured of making a bowl game and could sneak up to the San Francisco Bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl. But Detroit and Dallas are still the most likely destinations, given NU’s small alumni base and the lack of hype surrounding the team this season.

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