Commentary: Northwestern's Bowl Destination
by Jonathan Hodges

With the regular season now in the rear-view mirror and Northwestern sitting at 9-3 on the year, it's officially time for bowl posturing to begin.  While there are still two weeks worth of football left to be played by many teams across the nation, the Wildcats and the rest of the Big Ten have completed their schedules and are all officially in "waiting mode" save for Penn State, who have locked up the conference's automatic bid to a BCS game - which will be the Rose Bowl if they do not make it to the national championship game (unlikely as they currently rank 8th in the BCS, behind Utah who is 12-0 and has also completed their regular season).

The win over Illinois gave NU a clear window of bowls where they can be selected, and those are the Outback, Alamo, and Champs Sports Bowls (as discussed in further detail, including percentage chances, on the HTP Bowl Page).

Here are the bowl selection rules to be aware of while awaiting the official selections, which will be announced on Sunday, December 7 (the BCS game selections are announced on FOX at 7PM and the remainder of the bowl games are announced on ESPN starting at 8PM):

Bowl Selection Order

1. Rose Bowl (Penn State)
2. Capital One Bowl
3. Outback Bowl
4. Alamo Bowl
5. Champs Sports Bowl
6. Insight Bowl
7. Motor City Bowl

Selection Rules

- For the Capital One and Champs Sports Bowls, the Big Ten team with the highest record or a team within one win of that highest available team must be selected.
- For the Outback and Alamo Bowls, the Big Ten team with the highest record or a team within one win of that highest available team must be selected IF a Big Ten team does not receive a BCS at-large bid.  If the Big Ten does have 2 teams in BCS games, this rule is waived and any eligible team can be selected.
- (This rule doesn't factor in since the Big Ten has 7 eligible teams and 7 guaranteed bowl slots and the fact that all eligible teams have a winning record): Teams with a winning record (7-5 or better) must all be placed into a bowl before any .500 teams (6-6) can be placed into a bowl.

How do Bowls make their decision?

Nobody really knows for sure, unless you are a bowl representative who garners a lively-colored sports coat and travels around the country being catered to by schools seeking your good favor.  Yes, bowls routinely base their selections on records and results from the field of play, although one must remember that the primary driver of every bowl decision is MONEY.  In fact, this is the one main reason that college football (I-A/FBS) does not have a playoff, why the BCS exists, why more and more bowls continue to be created (there are 34 this year, an increase by 2 over last year), and why things look to continue this way for some time.  Bowls earn money from TV contracts (which are based on their conference affiliations and selection positions and are ironed out years in advance) and selling tickets.  So, when it comes to selection time, the bowls look to do one thing - fill their stadium.  As a secondary issue, they may also look for a chance to get more money flowing in the community by getting out-of-towners in to occupy hotel rooms and visit local restaraunts and attractions, but selling those tickets is priority number one.  Yes, conferences have placed some selection rules in contracts to give a semblance of a reward to teams that do better than others, but there is a lot of flexibility allowed for bowls who want to sell tickets and make money in order to stay afloat.

Northwestern's Bowl Options

As mentioned earlier, NU's realistic bowl options are the Outback, Alamo, and Champs Sports Bowls.  Taking into consideration NU's record (9-3), the other eligible teams from the Big Ten, the selection order, and the rules stated above, the worst-case scenario for Northwestern is the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando on December 27 no matter what happens with BCS at-large bids and other Big Ten bowl selections.  Technically, NU is in the running for the Capital One Bowl (formerly Citrus Bowl) since NU's 9 wins puts it on equal selection footing with Ohio State and Michigan State, but given the results on the field from those two games and their large fan bases, it's all but assured that both will be selected before NU.  This narrows the window down to the three aforementioned bowls.

Recent Bowl Appearances

The following are eligible Big Ten schools' appearances in each of the current bowls since 1995 (the seasons listed are from the associated regular season year, not necessarily the year that the game was played in the case of the January 1 bowls).  Also note that teams are listed only in bowls that they may be technically eligible for (assuming the Big Ten gets 2 teams into BCS games), i.e. Wisconsin at 7-5 cannot be eligible for the Capital One Bowl, but could be eligible for the Outback Bowl if the Big Ten has 2 teams in the BCS (although it's not likely that they will be selected):

Capital One Bowl (formerly Citrus Bowl): Iowa 1 (2004), Michigan State 1 (1999), Northwestern 1 (1996), Ohio State 1 (1995).
Outback Bowl: Iowa 2 (2005, 2003), Michigan State 0, Minnesota 0, Northwestern 0, Ohio State 2 (2001, 2000), Wisconsin 3 (2007, 2004, 1997).
Alamo Bowl: Iowa 3 (2006, 2001, 1996), Michigan State 1 (2003), Minnesota 0, Northwestern 1 (2000), Ohio State 1 (2004), Wisconsin 1 (2002)
Champs Sports Bowl: Iowa 0, Michigan State 1 (2007), Minnesota 1 (2000), Northwestern 0, Ohio State 0, Wisconsin 0.
Insight Bowl: Minnesota 1 (2006), Wisconsin 1 (1996).
Motor City Bowl: Minnesota 0, Wisconsin 0.

If bowls are targeting teams that have not been in some time, they seem to have been dealt a pretty good hand.  No Big Ten team vying for the Capital One Bowl has been there in the past 3 years, and the most likely teams (OSU and MSU) haven't been there this decade.  The Outback Bowl will have some nice choices as well: if the Big Ten gets only 1 team in the BCS, MSU would be a shoo-in, meanwhile if the conference gets 2 teams into BCS games, it would set up an interesting dilemma for the bowl that seems to favor NU: Iowa has been twice in the past 6 years (most recently after the 2005 season) while NU has never been to the bowl.  The Alamo Bowl looks to be in a similar situation as Iowa has been twice since NU last visited, although Wisconsin (who has only been once, in 2002) and Minnesota may technically be in the mix (again assuming the Big Ten gets 2 teams in the BCS).  The Champs Sports Bowl looks to be in a great situation as it's unlikely they'll have a chance to select MSU, who was there last year, or Minnesota, who will likely slip to the bottom rung of the bowl ladder, and will get either Iowa or NU, neither of whom have played in that bowl (although it is played in Orlando, so one can reference the Capital One Bowl for the recent visits to the area from each team).  The Insight Bowl will likely get the last pick and will either be stuck with Minnesota or will steal Wisconsin before passing Minnesota to the Motor City Bowl (which has only had 2 Big Ten teams ever and neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin).

But, the fact is that a team whose fan base "travels well" will dissuade bowls and those teams can end up in the same bowl in consecutive years (see Ohio State, who went to the Outback Bowl in conecutive seasons and also went to the Fiesta Bowl 3 times this decade), so don't read too much into any of these "recent visits."

Scenario 1: 2 Big Ten Teams in BCS

What must happen:  Oregon State must lose to Oregon this coming Saturday (Oregon St. is favored by 3.5), assuming USC wins out (against ND and UCLA).

With 10 BCS bowl slots and 6 taken by conference champions (one of those being Penn State), it leaves 4 at-large bids.  One of those bids will go to Utah, which will end up being the highest ranked non-BCS conference team within the top 12 (they are currently ranked 6th), thereby automatically giving them a bid.  Two more will likely go to second teams from the SEC and Big XII.  The fourth will remain given a rule that a conference may have a maximum of 2 teams in the BCS any given year.

If Oregon State beats Oregon, they will receive the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl (and a likely rematch with Penn State), and if that happens and USC wins out, the Trojans will likely receive that final BCS at-large bid, given that they are currently #5 in the BCS standings and are, of course, an attractive pick.  If Oregon St. loses, then USC would receive the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl and the final BCS at-large spot would remain open.  Currently, the available teams to fill that final spot would be Boise State and Ohio State (although TCU and/or Ball State could also move up into the top 14 of the BCS to be eligible), but in any case it ends up being Ohio State versus a non-BCS conference school, and the Buckeyes would beat out any of those schools for the BCS bowl bid.

If that does occur, there are 3 reasonable scenarios for Northwestern where the 'Cats could land in any of the 3 potential bowls:

Scenario 1A: Rose: Penn State, BCS at-large: Ohio State, Capital One: Michigan State, Outback: Northwestern, Alamo: Iowa, Champs Sports: Wisconsin, Insight: Minnesota.

This would be a best-case scenario for NU, as the Outback would have the option to select ANY of the remaining Big Ten teams (again, the assumption is that Michigan State will be selected for the Capital One given the results on the field although both NU and Iowa would be available to be picked for that game).  Obviously both NU and Iowa are attractive options for the Outback, and reports are that NU AD Phillips and his staff have put the campaign in full swing to get Northwestern seriously considered for the bowl.  Remember, though, that the Outback passed over NU to select Ohio State back in 2000, despite the fact that NU had a better conference record and had just won a co-conference championship (OSU did not share the title that year).  This season, it could be the Outback picking Iowa over NU, despite NU having a better overall record AND a head-to-head win AT Iowa.

Scenario 1B: Rose: Penn State, BCS at-large: Ohio State, Capital One: Michigan State, Outback: Iowa, Alamo: Northwestern, Champs Sports: Wisconsin, Insight: Minnesota.

This is scenario is more likely than 1A, given that Iowa is perceived as a better pick due to the size of the fan base alone.  The problem with this scenario is that the Alamo would also have the ability to select ANY eligible Big Ten team, including Wisconsin, who seems to be an attractive pick based on their fan base.  Add to that the fact that NU was last in San Antonio in 2000 (not that long ago for Wildcat fans) and may not travel as well.

Scenario 1C: Rose: Penn State, BCS at-large: Ohio State, Capital One: Michigan State, Outback: Iowa, Alamo: Wisconsin, Champs Sports: Northwestern, Insight: Minnesota.

Not very likely, as this scenario would have two teams jumping NU in the bowl selection order (including Wisconsin, who has 2 fewer wins), but still plausible given the "fan base" arguments listed above.  The Champs Sports Bowl would have to pick NU based on the selection rules listed above.  It would also be a poor matchup in the Alamo Bowl, with the potential for a 9+ win Big XII team to face a Wisconsin team that limped to 7 wins (it took an opponent's missed XP in OT to escape their last opponent, I-AA/FCS Cal Poly).

Scenario 2: 1 Big Ten Team in BCS

What must happen:  If Oregon State beats Oregon and USC win out (which they are both favored to do), this is the likely scenario.

As described in the paragraphs concerning the BCS above, this would lead to a Penn State/Oregon State rematch in the Rose Bowl with USC taking the available BCS at-large bid.  Then, OSU will almost definitely go to the Capital One and MSU to the Outback, despite NU being in the mix for both games since the 'Cats are within 1 win of both of those teams (see above statements about on the field results and "fan bases").

Scenario 2A: Rose: Penn State, Capital One: Ohio State, Outback: Michigan State, Alamo: Northwestern, Champs Sports: Iowa, Insight: Wisconsin, Motor City: Minnesota.

This would assume that the Alamo Bowl selects NU before Iowa, which may be a stretch, although the matchup between a 9+ win Big XII team and a 9-win NU team would seem to be more interesting.  If they don't select the 'Cats, see the scenario below.

Scenario 2B: Rose: Penn State, Capital One: Ohio State, Outback: Michigan State, Alamo: Iowa, Champs Sports: Northwestern, Insight: Wisconsin, Motor City: Minnesota.

A likely scenario similar to 1B, with the Alamo Bowl passing on NU to take the "more favorable" Iowa squad.  Given that Oregon State is favored over Oregon and USC should beat ND and UCLA (soundly), and the fact that Iowa is a very favorable pick for bowls, this seems to be the most likely bowl lineup out of all 5 sub-scenarios listed here.  Note that once again, the Champs Sports Bowl must select NU above Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Final Thoughts

As one can see with the scenarios above, there is still a lot that has not yet been decided - both on the field and off - and it will be just about 2 weeks until anything is confirmed.  Wildcat fans need not worry too much, though, as NU's destination is assured to be somewhere warm in late December/early January, thanks to NU's 9th win of the season.  Now it will be time to play the waiting game while the NU athletic department campaigns on behalf of Fitz and the team.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.