Football: Bowl scenarios for Northwestern

Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor


Wildcat fans can already start celebrating, but don’t buy plane tickets just yet.

With just one game left to play and nine wins in its pocket, Northwestern has already assured itself of a bowl placement well above the basement tier that holds the likes of the Potato Bowl. ESPN, CBS Sports and SB Nation all project the Cats to be picked for the Outback Bowl, played January 1 in Tampa, Florida, against an SEC team. But there’s still plenty that could happen in the final two weeks that would affect where NU travels.

First, a primer on bowl selection: It’s complicated. The College Football Playoff committee holds control over which teams are selected for the four-team playoff and also determines which teams play in the other four bowls that make up the “New Year’s Six.” The committee hand-picks the matchups for the four non-playoff games, with a few rules. They have to take the highest-ranked teams available, meaning there’s no skipping a team to pick one with a larger fan base — something that really works in NU’s favor — and the four games must include at least one team from the “Group of 5” conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt).

So can the Cats make the cut for the New Year’s Six? Probably not. Assuming Michigan State takes care of business against Penn State on Saturday, the Spartans will play Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. If Michigan State loses and Ohio State beats Michigan, the Buckeyes are in; and if Michigan beats Ohio State and Michigan State loses then the Wolverines will play in the championship. Regardless, whoever is crowned champion of the Big Ten will probably be pulled into the playoff.

It’s extremely unlikely that NU will rank above either of the Big Ten East runner ups in the final ranking, let alone both. Michigan obliterated the Cats, which will weigh heavily with the committee, while Michigan State has arguably a better resume than NU, and Ohio State is still the most talented college football team not named Alabama.

To put it more simply: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will all probably rank higher than NU in the final playoff committee ranking, shutting NU out of the New Year’s Six.

Outside of the top tier, the next-best bowl games holding contracts with the Big Ten are the Citrus Bowl, played January 1 in Orlando, Florida, the Outback Bowl and the Holiday Bowl, played Dec. 30 in San Diego, California. This is where things start to get very interesting.

The Playoff committee holds no influence here. The various entities that run the Citrus, Outback and Holiday bowls submit preferences to the Big Ten, but the conference actually ultimately decides which teams go where. Again, this probably works in the Cats’ favor. The Big Ten is more likely than the purely corporate bowls to consider actual football merit over potential profitability.

This is how the Cats end up in the Outback Bowl: Iowa and two of Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan go to the New Year’s Six. The odd team out from the East gets picked for the Citrus Bowl, and NU slides into the Outback Bowl as the next-best Big Ten team. Wisconsin gets slotted after the Cats into the Holiday Bowl, in part because of NU’s head-to-head victory Saturday. That assumes the Cats beat Illinois this Saturday, which is likely but not a given. If NU loses and Wisconsin prevails over Minnesota, then it becomes much more likely the Badgers jump ahead of the Cats and into the Outback Bowl. If both teams lose, nothing should change.

It’s possible the Holiday Bowl preferences NU and the Big Ten screws the Cats by assigning them there even if they beat Illinois. But that would be a raw deal for a team with a better non-conference resume than Wisconsin and that beat the Badgers head-to-head. Plus, the Holiday Bowl probably wants Wisconsin and its larger fan base anyway.

Pencil the Cats into the Outback Bowl for now, and have a pen ready for Dec. 6 when the full bowl schedule is announced.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote