Commentary: Honest Northwestern Bowl Assessment
by Jonathan Hodges

With the regular season now in the books for the Northwestern Wildcats (8-4, 5-3), now comes the hard part: waiting for the bowl bids to be handed out on December 6.

That's right, with nine of 11 Big Ten teams' regular seasons complete (and the three remaining games for the two still-active teams of little consequence), almost everyone is waiting to see where they end up in late December or early January.

Only Ohio State, by virtue of its outright conference crown, knows its bowl destination, which will be the Rose Bowl.

At 10-2 and in the top 14 of the BCS rankings, both Penn State and Iowa eagerly await the handing out of the BCS bowl at-large berths, with one of them likely to get in.  Their fate depends on the results from some other teams' remaining games (a little) and bowl politics (a lot).  And then there's the question of which one will get the bid: Iowa defeated Penn State on the road earlier in the season, but PSU is known to travel well and draw TV viewers.

BCS Breakdown

Since the BCS at-large berths are critical to the Big Ten bowl ladder, more detail is below.

There will likely be two available BCS at-large spots (remember that a conference can have a maximum of two teams in the BCS: their automatic qualifier and one at-large selection).  The loser of the SEC Championship Game and TCU, the highest ranked non-BCS conference school, have all but secured the other two available at-large spots.

Competing for the final two BCS at-large spots are the following teams and what they must do to get one of the coveted spots, listed in descending order for the team most likely to get an at-large spot:

BCS No. 11 Iowa (10-2) & BCS No. 13 Penn State (10-2): As mentioned earlier, they're done for the year, and bowl politics will likely decide which of these two gets the spot.  It is very likely that one will get a spot in either the Fiesta Bowl or the Orange Bowl.  If Oklahoma State loses and Texas wins the Big XII, one of these teams is likely a shoo-in.  Otherwise, it's fairly certain but not guaranteed that they will trump Boise State or a second Big East team.

BCS No. 12 Oklahoma State (9-2): They still have a huge rivalry game at Oklahoma this weekend that will determine their bowl fate.  Win, and they're eligible for an at-large spot and will almost definitely get one if Texas wins the Big XII, with the Fiesta Bowl being the destination (the Fiesta Bowl's Big XII affiliation means they would like to take a Big XII team with their at-large selection in place of Texas).  They likely have the clearest path to a berth, although their relatively smaller and regional fan base may make the bowl committee think twice.

BCS No. 6 Boise State (11-0): Win vs. Nevada (8-3) and vs. New Mexico State (3-8) and hope that the BCS bowls are willing to take a school with a relatively smaller fan base that has a better overall record.  They also need all the help they can get, which means an Oklahoma State loss to Oklahoma this week, Texas taking care of business against Nebraska in the Big XII championship, and Cincinnati beating Pittsburgh.  Most likely destination is the Fiesta Bowl if they can win the hearts and minds of the bowl committee.

Potential BCS spoilers, listed in descending order for the spoiled team most likely to still get into the BCS (i.e. Texas is the most likely to get an at-large berth if it loses its championship game):

Nebraska (8-3): Have locked up the Big XII North even with a game at Colorado remaining.  It's very unlikely, but if they upset Texas in the championship game they could steal a BCS automatic berth, with Texas taking one of the at-large bids.  And it's happened before, with Texas A&M upsetting Kansas State in 1998 and Kansas State upsetting Oklahoma in 2003 (although Oklahoma would still make the national championship game that year).

BCS No. 18 Clemson (8-3): They will face BCS No. 7 Georgia Tech (10-1) in the ACC title game.  If they upset the Yellow Jackets, it will present another interesting decision for the BCS bowls assuming Tech beats Georgia this week, as they would likely remain in BCS at-large contention but don't have the national appeal to guarantee an at-large berth.  In that case, put them in the same category as Oklahoma State, and it's all up to the politics from there.

BCS No. 9 Pittsburgh (9-1): Pitt has two remaining games: a dangerous rivalry game at West Virginia and a winner-take-all de-facto Big East championship vs. BCS No. 5 Cincinnati (10-0) following that.  Assuming Cincy beats Illinois this week, a Pitt win would give them the automatic berth, and Cincinnati would be in a tough spot: holding a solid record but hoping that a BCS bowl picks them despite their small non-national fan base.

Big Ten Bowl Impact and Northwestern's Destination

So, once all that BCS mess is sorted out, back to the Big Ten affiliated bowl games.  Assuming Iowa or Penn State gets picked for a BCS game, the other team will definitely be slotted into the Capital One Bowl.  If the BCS leaves them both out, then they will go to the Capital One and Outback Bowls (again, the order is up to politics).

After that comes another interesting decision: Wisconsin (8-3, 5-3, with one game at Hawaii remaining) versus Northwestern (8-4, 5-3), who, as you know, defeated Wisconsin last week.

If a Big Ten team does get a BCS at-large berth, the Outback will likely take Wisconsin, if only to uphold their history of snubbing the Wildcats in favor of teams with larger fan bases (Ohio State after the 2000 season and Iowa after the 2008 season) despite NU having an on-the-field advantage.  Northwestern's destination would then be clear: the Champs Sports Bowl.

If the conference does not get an at-large BCS bid, it would leave the Champs Sports to choose between UW and NU, but this decision may actually go NU's way.  Wisconsin has been to an Orlando bowl game in three of the last four years, including a trip to the Champs Sports last season that was rumored to have fewer Badger fans in attendance than what was hoped.  The Tribune recently reported that this situation would indeed tip in the 'Cats' favor, with the Champs Sports taking the recent trips into account and likely picking NU.

If the Champs Sports Bowl for some reason decides to take Wisconsin again, Northwestern would also repeat its last bowl destination: the Alamo Bowl.

Other Big Ten Bowls

Not that anyone cares, but Michigan State and Minnesota are also bowl eligible and will have to go somewhere.

If the conference gets two teams in the BCS or not, expect Michigan State to be selected ahead of Minnesota due to its fan base that has historically traveled better.  That, of course, despite a Minnesota win over MSU back in late October.

If Iowa or PSU gets into a BCS game, MSU will likely head to the Alamo, where they last went in 2003.  That will leave Minnesota to head back to the Insight Bowl, a place they've been two of the last three seasons.  Note that Minnesota has never played in the Alamo Bowl, but that likely won't matter much, either.

If everyone has been bumped down a spot and Wisconsin or NU landed in the Alamo, MSU will without a doubt head to the Insight (who doesn't want to host Minnesota in three of four seasons), while Minnesota will drop to the not-so-coveted Pizza Bowl in Detroit.


Everyone and their brother has bowl projections this time of year (many of them started back in August, and hopefully they deleted those articles because they now look silly), so here is my take for the Big Ten teams:

Rose Bowl: Ohio State*
Orange Bowl: Iowa
Capital One: Penn State
Outback: Wisconsin
Champs Sports: Northwestern
Alamo: Michigan State
Insight: Minnesota

Other Bowl Notes

Note that the bowl apocalypse (not enough eligible teams to fill all 68 spots for the 34 bowl games) won't happen this year, since there are already 69 bowl eligible teams and another handful of teams that could still become eligible (10).

It's a good year to be a mid-major with a winning record, though, with most of them likely to head to bowl games.  The ACC will likely have two unfilled bowl spots and the Mountain West and Big Ten one unfilled each, opening up the spots for any available team.

Note that teams with winning records must be selected before any 6-6 teams can fill those at-large spots, so some 6-6 teams, including Notre Dame if they lose to Stanford this week, will likely be left at home in favor of teams with a winning record, like currently 7-4 Northern Illinois.  No need to feel sorry for them, as NU was left home with a 6-6 record back in 2007.

Selection Timing

Fans are the ones hurt the most by the current system, as the vast majority cannot make their travel reservations until their team's destination is announced on Sunday, December 6.  The teams not receiving BCS bids will be officially released early in the afternoon, so the bowls will begin to announce their decisions online that afternoon.  The BCS has its selection special on FOX late that afternoon, followed by ESPN's bowl selection special that evening.

It is very unlikely that the lower bowls will formally announce any selections before that date since a lot is riding on the teams going to the BCS.

So, until then, NU fans can at least sit back and enjoy the football still being played without worrying too much about how it affects NU's final destination.

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.