With the Big Ten West title seemingly out of sight for Northwestern, the final five games are all about one thing: bowl eligibility. The Wildcats have to win at least two, but ideally three of their remaining games to achieve that goal.
Will the final stretch of the schedule allow them to do so? Let's dissect it, with some help from SB Nation's Bill Connelly and his statistical model.
Nov. 1 at Iowa
Win probability according to Connelly's statistical model: 26.0%
Pat Fitzgerald has still never beaten an FBS school coming off a bye week at Northwestern, so the extra week to prepare might not be a major advantage for NU. But Iowa isn't a team that should merit fear. The Hawkeyes just lost to Maryland, and haven't been anywhere near the team that many thought they could be prior to the season. So while Connolly's model says NU would only win roughly one in four in this matchup, I'd actually put the Wildcats' chances at around 40 percent.
Nov. 8 vs. Michigan
Win probability according to Connelly's statistical model: 59.5%
Here's another game that looked tougher a few months ago than it does now. Michigan has endured a massively disappointing season, and despite the win over Penn State, things don't appear to be looking up. The Wolverines just simply aren't that good. Northwestern should be favored in this game, and if the Wildcats lose to Iowa, this will be a win they almost have to have.
Nov. 15 at Notre Dame
Win probability according to Connelly's statistical model: N/A
Connelly only releases probabilities in his Big Ten projections, so we've got no help for this game, but you'd have to imagine that Northwestern is a sizable underdog in South Bend. Notre Dame was a questionable offensive pass interference call away from beating undefeated Florida State in Tallahassee, and when compared to Northwestern, the Irish have more talent across the board. This is easily the toughest of NU's remaining games, and probably their toughest of the season. The one thing that might give Northwestern fans a glimmer of hope though is that of Notre Dame's final four games, the matchup with NU is, on paper, the simplest, so perhaps there's an opportunity for a letdown.
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Win probability according to Connelly's statistical model: 42.2%
Purdue has, sneakily, been playing some decent football as of late, and that's a big reason why Connelly's model has NU as an underdog. The Boilermakers hung with Michigan State, and very nearly beat Minnesota in Minneapolis. So frankly, while Northwestern would have been considered a few levels above Purdue a few weeks ago, that's not the case anymore. NU is still the more talented team, but this should no longer be considered a near automatic win.
Nov. 29 vs. Illinois
Win probability according to Connelly's statistical model: 85.3%
As much as some would like to believe that ‘anything can happen in a rivalry game,' this is Northwestern's second easiest game of the year, and it's as close to a ‘gimme' win as NU is going to get. That's not to say the Wildcats are impervious to disaster - they still very well could lay an egg and let this one slip - but Illinois is looking destined for the Big Ten cellar, and if Northwestern needs this win to attain bowl eligibility, I can't see them letting it slip away.
So according to Connelly's projections, Northwestern has a 33.6 percent chance to finish with five Big Ten wins or more. Factor in the Notre Dame game, and the probability that Northwestern goes 6-6 or better is likely somewhere between 35 and 40 percent. That's a far cry from what it would've been two weeks ago.
However, there is also the chance that 5-7 might be good enough. If there are not enough six-win teams to fill all 38 bowl games, the five-win teams with the best APR (Academic Progress Rate) scores get the final bids, and Northwestern would almost certainly be among those APR-based qualifiers. And with 76 out of 128 teams (59.4 percent) being eligible, the likelihood of an insufficient number of six-win teams is higher than ever.