Pillote: Bowl projections for Northwestern, explained

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Gameday Editor


Sitting at 4-5 with three winnable games left on its schedule against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, Northwestern looks poised to make a bowl game for the second season in a row.

Minnesota (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) is the only one of the remaining opponents with a winning record. Purdue (3-6, 1-5) and Illinois (3-6, 2-4) each sit at the bottom of the conference, and the Wildcats triumphed over all three teams in 2015. Barring an epic late-season collapse, NU should reach the six wins necessary to qualify for a postseason berth. Below are the three potential finishes that could be in store for the Cats, and what they will mean.

Scenario 1: NU wins out (7-5)

This, of course, is the best possible case: NU rolls to three straight wins and ends the season having recovered nicely from an embarrassing 0-2 start. But in the ever-more-convoluted world of bowl games, it’s not as simple as slotting NU into a game based on its record.

There’s a pecking order among the bowl games with tie-ins to the Big Ten, with certain bowls getting preference over others. The Citrus Bowl, for example, gets a better pick of teams than the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Under the conference’s current agreement with bowls, the games submit a team preference to the Big Ten but the conference must approve the final slate.

The Cats benefit from a contractual provision that most of the Big Ten’s bowl partners must select at least five different teams over six years. The current bowl contracts kicked in prior to the 2014 season, meaning teams which played in a given bowl game in the last two years are unlikely to play in that same game this year. The rule could lead to some reshuffling among the bowls that ends with NU playing in a bowl it otherwise wouldn’t have.

At 7-5, the most likely bowl choices for the Cats are either the Pinstripe Bowl, played on Dec. 28 in New York, or the Music City Bowl, played Dec. 30 in Nashville. The Pinstripe Bowl makes a lot of sense; NU has a significant East Coast fan base, and the venue, Yankee Stadium, isn’t as difficult to fill up as some of the NFL stadiums used for other bowl games.

Helping the Cats here is that Indiana (5-4) played in the Pinstripe Bowl last year and likely won’t be selected for the game again. NU should be the pick if it’s between those two schools.

The worst case scenario for the Cats at 7-5 would be the Foster Farms Bowl, played Dec. 28 in Santa Clara, California.

Scenario 2: NU finishes 6-6

The Cats will still make a bowl game at 6-6, but the options become far less exciting. The two main choices here are the Quick Lane Bowl, played Dec. 26 in Detroit, or the Heart of Dallas Bowl, played Dec. 27 in Dallas.

NU could sneak into the Foster Farms Bowl at 6-6, but that would probably require some surprising upsets to end the season. A Maryland loss at home against Rutgers (2-7), an Iowa loss on the road against Illinois or an Indiana loss at home against Purdue could knock respective those teams out of bowl eligibility, but the Cats shouldn’t count on those outcomes.

Scenario 3: NU finishes 5-7

Yes, a team can finish 5-7 and still qualify for the postseason. There are now 41 bowl games requiring 82 teams, but just 79 finished 6-6 or better in 2015. The NCAA fills these open spots with 5-7 teams, picking the most academically proficient teams first.

NU had the fourth-highest NCAA academic progress rate among FBS schools in the latest reporting cycle. Two of the teams ahead of the Cats have already become bowl eligible, and NU beat the third, Duke, in the teams’ head-to-head matchup this season. If the NCAA is selecting 5-7 teams, the Cats should be the first one picked and would probably be slotted for the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

But there’s no guarantee there won’t be enough 6-6 teams. If NU doesn’t win two more games, the Cats could still end up out of the postseason.

Bobby Pillote is a McCormick senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote