Kevin Vedder


The Gator and Bowl Selection

By Kevin Vedder

After a week of "sources" buzzing about what teams will be going to what bowls, and having most of them being wrong, we can take a breath, knowing that Northwestern has formally accepted an invitation to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL on New Year's Day.

Following a 9-3 season that exceeded most everyone's expectations, a bowl win is the final program hurdle to be cleared by the 'Cats. The Twitter-verse had been abuzz with folks complaining about NU getting jobbed in the bowl selection process, and it may very well be true that the Big Ten intervened and applied pressure to the bowls to select certain teams. As of late last Saturday night, following the beatdown the now Bielema-less Badgers applied to Nebraska, it was thought by many that the Capital One Bowl in Orlando would be the NU postseason destination. However, on Sunday afternoon, it was announced that the Huskers got the nod for the Capital One, followed by Michigan to the Outback Bowl, leaving NU to the Gator.

My advice to those complaining...get over it, for a couple of reasons. While it would certainly be nice to play in what's considered a more "prestigious" bowl game, look at the facts. Both Nebraska and Michigan beat NU during the regular season, and while that by itself is not one of the hard and fast criteria of bowl selection, it's true. Further, if you want to point to NU's record being superior to Michigan, consider the Wolverines' losses: one to a common opponent to whom NU also lost (Neb), one to an undefeated though postseason-ineligible team (Ohio State), and one each to the two teams in the national championship game in Notre Dame and Alabama. Not bad.

And seriously, what will be remembered is only whether NU breaks the bowl losing streak or extends it to ten. Consider: what happened in 2008 when Northwestern went 9-3? I bet 90+% of you would say NU lost to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl before you say NU got passed over for the Outback by Iowa even though the 'Cats beat the Hawkeyes head-to-head and were one game better. The program won't suffer any harm by playing in the Gator as opposed to the Outback or Cap One. Just winning the bowl game is all that matters.

So on to the Gator Bowl, where the 'Cats will take on the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. If you were looking for an SEC team to play that would give NU the best shot at breaking the nine-game losing streak in bowls, this would be it.

Mississippi State is 8-4, which sounds good, but look under the hood a little. Non-conference wins against Jackson State, South Alabama, Middle Tennesse, and Troy. Hardly a Murderer's Row. How about the 4-4 record in the SEC? Gotta be worth something, right? Think again. Wins over Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, and Arkansas. Those four teams went a combined 3-29 in SEC play. The four losses were legit, to Alabama. LSU, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, but the Bulldogs were blown out in all those losses. Number of teams they beat playing in a bowl: zero. You could very easily argue that the best SEC win between NU & Mississppi State was the 'Cats victory over Vanderbilt.

The 'Cats, by everyone's admission, had a great year, finishing the regular season with nine wins. Even the losses were close: by one point to Nebraska, and in overtime to Michigan, while blowing an 11-point fourth quarter lead at Penn State. There were several reasons for the solid year, but two of them were the improved defensive line play and the emergence of Venric Mark as a playmaker out of the backfield.

It should make for an exciting game on New Year's Day, and one of the best chances for NU to get the bowl monkey off their backs. But please, Coach Fitz, no stuffed animal on the sidelines in a jersey this time.