by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The benefits of reaching a bowl game span beyond the competitive joy of being rewarded for a .500-or-better season. It’s about more than traveling with your teammates to tropical locations and receiving high-priced goodie bags and spending shopping sprees and bowl swag. For coaches, it’s an opportunity to play a showcase game in front of prospective recruits, to try out new tactical quirks that stayed under wraps during the regular season, to begin kicking the tires on next year’s personnel rotations and schemes. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, while preparing his team for the Gator Bowl matchup with Mississippi State on New Year’s Day, has allotted underclassmen more repetitions and opportunities in practice to give them a taste of what’s to come.
“The underclassmen can maybe get their first snapshot of the way things work,” Fitzgerald said after practice last Saturday. “Bowl games are critically important for that.”
The history of Northwestern’s football program gives the bowl experience a distinctly different tone, at least for those outside the program. The bowl practices are not viewed as a constructive experience for young players getting their first chance to prove themselves with the first-teamers. Nor are they celebrated as a warming send-off party for graduating seniors. The general fan voice clamors for a win, to the point where nothing else – bowl placement, matchup, a wholistic perspective – matters.
It is no secret that Northwestern has not won a bowl game since 1949, when the Wildcats defeated Cal in the Rose Bowl. Fitzgerald knows that chorus better than anyone. But if you think he feels added pressure to crack the school’s longstanding postseason woes, Fitzgerald is not in the least bit concerned about the events that preceded his tenure.
His association with the streak is unavoidable – questions about postseason failure, both in men’s basketball and football, are predictable end-of-season talking points. Moving away from that discourse will require the Wildcats to do something they’ve failed to do for more than 60 years. What won’t help the ongoing discussion is hearkening back to the program’s inability to complete the feat of winning a bowl game.
At the press conference following Northwestern’s 50-14 rout over Illinois in the season-ending Land of Lincoln Rivalry game, Fitzgerald gave a window into his determination to shift the program’s postseason narrative. When reporters questioned the Wildcats coach about what it would mean for Northwestern to snap its decades-long postseason drought, a jovial, light-hearted Fitzgerald creased his smile into a focused grin and responded purposefully, “It’s kind of the only lingering negative in our program that you guys love to talk about,” he said. “The only thing I can do to make you guys not talk about it is to win.”
The Big Ten faces another tough bowl lineup this postseason, with each team – from Wisconsin vs. Stanford in the Rose Bowl, to Purdue vs. Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl – entering its game as the consensus underdog. The Gator Bowl, where Northwestern opened up as a 2.5-point underdog, a number that has since been bet down to 2, is widely perceived as the Big Ten’s best opportunity to notch a bowl victory against an SEC team, a point of pride for fans of both leagues.
In that sense, then, the Capitol One Bowl’s surprising decision to eschew Northwestern in favor of Big Ten Championship loser Nebraska could end up helping the league’s perception as a whole, even if most level-headed observers (excluding the few fans who still cling to the notion that winning a bowl game trumps playing, and potentially losing in a more highly-touted postseason fixture) roundly decried the bowl’s selection (and the questionable maneuverings behind it) . The Wildcats dodged a potential matchup with Georgia, who took BCS National Championship participant Alabama to the brink in the SEC Championship game, and boasts NFL talent at multiple positions.
Instead, Northwestern will face a Mississippi State team that faded down the stretch, losing four of its last five games, including its annual rivalry game with in-state foe Ole Miss, 40-24. That’s an indictment on their inability to sustain momentum through a rigorous regular season. It says nothing of Mississippi State’s recent bowl history, which is, by record, the best in all of college football.
The Bulldogs own the nation’s longest bowl winning streak, boast the Jim Thorpe Award winner at cornerback, and one of the most revered quarterback gurus in the country, coach Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs will be no pushover – that much is certain. When discussing Mississippi State, Fitzgerald threw out all the common SEC clichés about physical football and hulking yet nimble linemen and “speed” and other trite descriptors. “They’re big up front on both sides of the ball, but very athletic,” Fitzgerald said. “They have SEC speed. These guys are hungry.”
Those are indisputable points of truth – Mississippi State is a big, physical football team with an excellent coach and loads of talent on both sides of the ball. Their advantages, and betting line favoritism, is well understood. Playing against an SEC opponent in an NFL stadium in front of a rabid fan base, armed with ear-grating cow bells, is a valuable experience. That’s what postseason football is supposed to be about – the enjoyment of spending an extra month with teammates, playing in professional stadiums and beginning early preparations for next season.
Hopefully the general NU populace comes around on that refrain – that breaking a 60 + year streak is not the only goal of the bowl experience. Still, the only way to weed out all the negativity, the only way to erase the program’s linkage to historic postseason ineptitude is to destroy the link altogether: to win. “Nine wins is a great year,” Fitzgerald said after the Illinois game. “Ten is special.”
Reaching double-digits in the win column would not only make Northwestern’s season “great”, it would make the last 64 seem less awful, too.