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Comprehensive Guide to Northwestern's Bowl Scenarios and Opponent Possibilites

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Now that the regular season is over in the Big Ten, we’re getting a better sense of of what Northwestern’s bowl picture looks like. There are really only three possibilities at this point — the Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl and Gator Bowl. All three are in Florida and all three match the Wildcats up against an SEC school. A lot of NU’s bowl destination possibilities hinge on the Big Ten Championship, so we’ll break down what will play out in each championship game scenario.

If Nebraska wins the Big Ten Championship:

Nebraska is favored to win the title game against Wisconsin and most of the current bowl projections hinge on this happening. If this happens, Nebraska will go to the Rose Bowl, and the next bowl in line is the Capital One Bowl. Here’s how things can play out from there.

Capital One Bowl

The Capital One Bowl gets the first choice of teams from the Big Ten and SEC that aren’t chosen for the BCS. For now, we’ll focus on the Big Ten teams. The Capital One Bowl’s Big Ten choices are Michigan and Northwestern. Here is the case for each:

Michigan: The Wolverines seem to have the far better case for the Capital One Bowl. Not only do they have a bigger fan base — that means more ticket sales and a better TV audience — but they also won head-to-head and have a better Big Ten record. Big Ten record is a better indicator of team strength when comparing teams from the same conference because both teams played games from the same pool of teams. NU likely would have gone 2-2 in Michigan’s non-conference slate, too, while the Wolverines likely would have gone 4-0 with the Wildcats’ non-conference slate. NU fans sometimes complain that they are snubbed in bowl games for reasons other than on-field results, but in this case, Michigan would be snubbed if it weren’t chosen for the Capital One Bowl.

Northwestern: NU’s only real case for this game in an on-field sense is that it has a better overall record than Michigan. However, off the field, NU athletic director Jim Phillips can pitch that the Wildcats’ fan base will be more excited to go to Orlando — the program’s best potential bowl game since 1997 — than the Michigan fan base, which went to the Sugar Bowl last year and had hopes for a Rose Bowl berth this season. Also, if Alabama falls to Orlando (we’ll get to that scenario later), the Capital One Bowl may choose to take NU and avoid a Michigan-Alabama rematch.

There is technically a chance that the Capital One Bowl will take NU, but Michigan seems like a much more likely option. The Wolverines won the head-to-head meeting, have a better Big Ten record and have a bigger fan base. That’s typically a no-brainer for bowl games.

Outback Bowl

This is far and away the most likely option for Northwestern, especially if Nebraska wins the Big Ten title. If the Capital One Bowl chooses Michigan in this scenario, the Outback Bowl will be contractually obligated to take NU. The Outback Bowl cannot select a team with two fewer wins or two more losses than another team on the board, and no other teams come within a game of Northwestern.

If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Championship:

Here’s where things get interesting. If Wisconsin upsets Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Badgers will head to the Rose Bowl. That leaves Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern to fight it out for spots in the Capital One, Outback and Gator Bowls.

Capital One Bowl 

Because of the two win/two loss rule, the Capital One Bowl can only select Nebraska or Northwestern in this spot. There is a very real chance that the Capital One Bowl could select Northwestern since Nebraska was here last year. If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Championship Game, we'd project the Capital One Bowl to choose Northwestern, though Nebraska would also have a legitimate claim.

Outback Bowl

If the Capital One Bowl takes Nebraska, however, Northwestern and Michigan will be the options for the Outback Bowl. We have already outlined why Michigan is the more attractive bowl team than NU, so if those were the two teams available here, the Outback Bowl would likely take Michigan.

Gator Bowl 

If Nebraska goes to the Capital One Bowl, Northwestern will likely fall to the Gator Bowl. The Gator Bowl can choose any remaining team, but it likely won’t pass on NU for Michigan State, Minnesota or Purdue. Michigan State might bring more fans, but there isn’t a ton of energy surrounding that program and it wouldn’t be worth the hot water the bowl would be in with the Big Ten for choosing a 6-6 team over a 9-3 team, especially when the 6-6 team lost at home to the 9-3 team.

Possible Opponents: 

We’ll run through this game-by-game, as there are a number of different possibilities, but what we do know is that Northwestern will be matched up against an SEC team.

Capital One Bowl 

The consensus seems to be that the Capital One Bowl will select the SEC Championship Game loser. There is some talk that they could take Texas A&M, which is in its first year in the SEC and boasts a large fan base, a ton of momentum and a likely Heisman winner. However, it looks like it will be Georgia or Alabama. If Alabama loses, that seemingly helps NU’s Capital One Bowl chances because the bowl may want to avoid a Michigan-Alabama rematch from the first game of the season.

To sum things up, it’s still unclear who NU would play if it ends up in the Capital One Bowl, but it’s likely to be Georgia or Alabama. Texas A&M could potentially end up in the Capital One Bowl, but if the bowl is really set on taking NU, then it will go with the SEC Championship Game loser to avoid an NU-A&M rematch of last year’s Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. (As an aside, it’s amazing how both of those programs have bounced back this year). Regardless — whether it’s NU, Michigan or Nebraska — the SEC Championship Game loser looks like the most likely possibility.

Outback Bowl

At this point, we’ll project both Alabama and Georgia to be off the board. The next SEC choices go to the Cotton Bowl and the Outback Bowl, where the Cotton Bowl typically selects an SEC West team and the Outback Bowl typically selects an SEC East team. If Texas A&M is still on the board, the Aggies are almost certainly headed to the Cotton Bowl.

If the Outback Bowl sticks to taking an SEC East team, it will take South Carolina. However, LSU is also a possibility — the Outback Bowl can select an SEC West team, but the Cotton Bowl gets the first choice of teams in that division. We’ll say South Carolina is the most likely opponent since the Gamecocks are in the SEC East, though an LSU selection wouldn’t be shocking.

Gator Bowl

The Gator Bowl gets the sixth pick of SEC teams, which likely means it will be choosing between Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Regardless of which Big Ten team is in this game, Mississippi State looks like the most likely choice. If Northwestern drops to here, the Gator Bowl will almost certainly take the Bulldogs in order to avoid an NU-Vanderbilt rematch from earlier this season.

Northwestern rooting interests

The Big Ten Championship Game rooting interests depend on your confidence level for the Capital One Bowl to select Northwestern over Nebraska. If Nebraska wins the Big Ten Championship, Northwestern is locked into going to no worse than the Outback Bowl. If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Championship, the Capital One Bowl could potentially choose Northwestern over Nebraska, but if the Capital One Bowl passes on NU, the Wildcats will likely fall to the Gator Bowl.

The SEC Championship Game has a much smaller effect on NU’s destination, but the Wildcats are more likely to go to the Capital One Bowl if Alabama falls to there and the bowl decides to avoid a Michigan-Alabama rematch. There’s no guarantee of that, but it’s more likely that the Capital One Bowl would select NU if its opponent were Alabama rather than Georgia, so NU fans should root for Georgia to win the SEC Championship Game. However, the Big Ten Championship Game will have a much more direct effect on NU’s bowl destination.