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.