Commentary: Northwestern Bowl Hopes
by Jonathan Hodges

After 2/3 of the 2007 football season has passed, the Northwestern Wildcats stand at 5-3 (2-2 in conference play) and have bowl eligibility (6 wins) well within their sites.  The fact is, though, in this season of upsets and parity across the nation, 7 wins will most likely be necessary to lock up a bowl bid - and even that may require another conference to fail in filling out its bowl spots and NU picking up an at-large bid.  But before delving into that discussion, the remaining 4 games of the season come first.

Northwestern got over the "hump" of the season and are now riding a 3 game winning streak into the "home stretch" of the season featuring 4 tough Big Ten matchups that will determine the outcome of the conference this year.  Technically, all of NU's remaining opponents are in the bowl picture, and 3/4 have winning records and seem to be on their way to bowl eligibility now.


First up is Purdue, who now stands bowl eligible at 6-2 and is coming off of a big home win over Iowa (after losing badly to OSU and Michigan in consecutive weeks... sound familiar?).  The Boilermakers feature a big-time offense who can put points on the board and a porous defense (at best - again, sound familiar?).  This is arguably the toughest game for NU down the stretch - and it is Purdue's homecoming game in West Lafayette.  The game has all the makings of a shootout, and whichever defense can manage to get a stop or a turnover will most likely swing the game.


The Hawkeyes are definitely having a down year - but don't blame the defense.   Iowa is 14th nationally in scoring defense, giving up only 17.13 ppg, but the offense is horrid, ranking 117th nationally putting up an average of 15.0 ppg.  Still, at 3-5 they are clinging onto the chance of a bowl berth by winning 3-4 of their final games, and if their offense can manage to put up any points then they have a decent shot given that their defense is among the best nationally.  Fortunately, NU gets them in Evanston (Iowa is 1-4 on the road this year), but this will still be a tough game.


The Hoosiers are on the cusp of that bowl berth, at 5-3 (2-3), and still have a nonconference date with Ball State to potentially wrap up that 6th win.  This is a tough team with a high-octane offense and one of the top QB-WR combos nationally that could spell trouble for NU.  Their defense is playing well and they rank 2nd nationally in sacks, so don't discount that aspect of their game either.  This game looks to be a lot tougher than it did prior to the season, but again the 'Cats get this game at home, which will hopefully increase NU's chances for a win.


The annual rivalry game will be played down in Champaign, and who knows what to expect - Illinois is faltering after a hot start and now stands at 5-3 (3-2) and they'll have a shot at that 6th win against Ball State this coming week as well as a game at Minnesota following that.  Their offense is virtually one-dimensional with a strong running game but a passing offense that ranks 114th nationally (and freshman WR Benn accounts for almost half of their receiving yards), but still any offense provides a challenge to NU.  Their defense also isn't anything to scoff at and rank 24th nationally in scoring defense.  We'll see what the next 3 games bring, but by the end of the year this game could be a battle for a specific bowl berth.


First, NU must take care of its business.  The 'Cats will face 4 teams in the closing weeks that it will be competing with for a bowl bid - basically meaning NU controls its destination.  Win 3-4 games and the 'Cats will be guaranteed a trip to down south somewhere.  Win 2 games and NU will be headed to Detroit or someplace else (like Toronto).  Win 1 game and the 'Cats will be hoping for a lot of other things to happen to squeeze into a game.  Finally, win none and we all know where the 'Cats will be spending the winter break.

In the Big Ten, it appears that only one conference team will be headed to a BCS game, although there is an outside chance of sending two if Michigan and OSU win out and Michigan manages to beat OSU for the automatic bid.  But, if Ohio State continues down its current path and gets to the national championship game, then that will likely keep other Big Ten teams out of the BCS at-large discussion (in order to get a BCS at-large bid a team must have 9 wins and be ranked 12th or higher in the BCS rankings).

Given that, Michigan and Penn State would most likely fill out the Capital One and Outback slots, with Purdue and Wisconsin heading to the Alamo and Champs Sports Bowls, if the current standings play out the same at the end of the season.  This would leave only two guaranteed slots: the Insight and Motor City for the remaining teams which will most likely include Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois, and Northwestern.

A lot depends on how the remainder of the season plays out.  Given that this is a season of "parity" it would be within reason that we may see all 4 of those teams finish at 7-5.  Given that, it's all about who "travels well" in terms of bowl selections.  If NU is indeed tied with those 4 teams one could see Illinois (who hasn't been to a bowl since 2001) heading to Phoenix, and MSU or Indiana duking it out for a trip to Detroit (the Motor City Bowl must be salivating at getting a shot at MSU who could probably send a ton of fans from just down the road).  This would likely leave Indiana and NU looking for an at-large bid, something that doesn't usually come easily.

Given that, everyone will have to watch what happens in almost every other I-A/FBS conference the remainder of the way to see if conferences cannot fulfill their bowl obligations.  Right now, the best chance of that happening appears to be Conference USA, who has 6 bowl tie ins but only 5 teams within 2 games of reaching eligibility (with nobody who has yet clinched a spot).  Also, the MAC, who has 3 tie-ins, has only 4 teams within reach (again, none who have clinched that 6th win), and finally the Pac 10 who have 6 spots but only 3 teams who have clinched and 3 teams within 2 wins.  Problematic, though, is the SEC who has 11 teams who have either reached 6 wins or are within 2 wins of that mark, and the Big XII, who have 10 teams in the same situations.

Last year, no team with a 7-5 record or higher was left out of a bowl, so if NU does reach that mark - given that it is from the Big Ten - one must think that the 'Cats have a good shot at going somewhere, but nobody will have any idea where that is until the second week of December.


Basically, there is a ton of football yet to be played - and NU has to worry about itself before anything else.  Win 3-4 games and NU will be enjoying a bowl berth in a currently slated Big Ten bowl.  Win 2 and it's up in the air, although most likely NU will be playing somewhere in late December.  Win 0-1 and it's most likely home for the holidays.  Don't get too caught up in figuring out all of the possible scenarios as the 'Cats have a lot of their own business to attend to first.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

Previous jhodges commentary

jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.