Commentary: What Northwestern Must Do to Reach a Bowl in 2009
by Jonathan Hodges
Going into this season, most Northwestern fans and even some members of the
traditional media (who are typically "down" on the Wildcats) expected NU to win
enough games to earn a second consecutive bowl berth, which is something NU has
only done once in school history (1995-96). Instead, NU's season is on life
support with a 4-3 record heading into a tough final stretch of Big Ten
Yes, the 'Cats have a winning record after seven games, something
that would make NU fans very happy most seasons. But considering the
strength-of-schedule (or lack thereof) through the first half of NU's 2009
season, the Wildcats definitely under-achieved and have put themselves squarely
on the bowl bubble.
This week's matchup against Indiana (also 4-3) at
Ryan Field is critical for Northwestern's dwindling 2009 bowl hopes, with both
squads eager to get within one victory of bowl eligibility. After this week,
both teams have just one "win-able" game left on their respective schedules
(Purdue for Indiana and Illinois for Northwestern), so this game could very well
end up being a "play-in" game for bowl eligibility.
As everyone saw with
Purdue defeating Ohio State this past week, anything can happen in Big Ten
conference play, but the Wildcats will be facing two teams still in the heat of
the conference race (Penn State and Iowa) and another that is playing solid
football and has exceeded expectations for this season (Wisconsin). The battle
against the Hoosiers this week is a must-win.
Although NU opened as a
five point favorite versus Indiana this week, and despite the fact that NU has
been in every game this year (leading at the half last week and in the fourth in
their previous two losses), the Wildcats can't look past anyone, something they
should have learned in last year's loss to Indiana. NU still must put together
a "complete game" this weekend to come up victorious and get one step closer to
Looking ahead, if NU were to do as expected by beating Indiana
and Illinois, while losing to their other three opponents, they would stand at
6-6, putting them at the bottom rung of the bowl selection ladder. With seven
Big Ten teams heading towards winning records, this would leave NU in limbo,
much like in 2007 when the 'Cats ended at 6-6 and were left at home for the
holidays (the Big Ten had ten bowl eligible teams that year, and .500 NU and
Iowa were left out of the picture when bids were handed out).
will need some help to get in (again, if they take care of business), most
likely in the form of the Big Ten getting two teams into the BCS. That didn't
look likely at the beginning of the year, but with Iowa's strong performance,
the conference could put them along with the winner of the November 7th PSU/OSU
game into the BCS.
A lot depends on what happens in other conferences to
get that extra BCS bid, with only three at-large spots available (assuming one
of the four is taken by a "mid major" team, which is very likely with Boise
State sitting at fourth in the opening BCS rankings). The ACC teams have been
knocking each other off, but Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Miami (FL) are
done playing each other and are all in the top 14 of the initial BCS rankings.
The SEC is almost guaranteed a second berth. Thankfully, the Big XII seems to
be faltering with some promising teams from the North Division losing this last
week (Nebraska and Kansas) while usual BCS entrant Oklahoma is sitting at 3-3.
The Big East has done fairly well but doesn't look like they'll be able to
provide two teams for the top tier of bowl games.
That leaves the Big Ten
to duke it out with the Pac-10 for the final spot, and we'll have to see what
happens in conference play down the stretch for Oregon and USC; if those two
teams along with the Big Ten's top three avoid upsets down the stretch, it could
be an interesting battle.
If the Big Ten can't get two teams into the
BCS, that leaves NU hoping for an at-large bid for a bowl that can't fill one of
its slots due to one of its conference affiliates not providing enough eligible
teams. It's entirely possible, with just four bowl eligible teams failing to
receive a bid last year (6-6 Bowling Green, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State,
and San Jose State), but not a very likely situation.
The best way for
Northwestern to guarantee itself a bowl berth is to win seven games, meaning
that NU needs to win the games it should (Indiana and Illinois) while putting
together its best game of the year to defeat one of the conference's top teams
down the stretch. It all starts this week against Indiana in a do-or-die game
for a shot at the post season in 2009.
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is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com. His commentary
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