Week 10 in college football, and specifically in the Big Ten, was filled with positivity for Northwestern. The Wildcats took care of Penn State at home, and results elsewhere around the country pushed NU up to 18th in the College Football Playoff rankings. Then, late Saturday night, Michigan State lost a wild game at Nebraska, who Northwestern beat in Week 8.
Nebraska's win was crucial for Northwestern in multiple ways. It sent the Spartans tumbling into likely-two-loss territory, with a game at Ohio State still looming, and likely dropped them out of the New Year's Six picture unless they can knock off the Buckeyes. With a loss to Ohio State, Michigan State's résumé would compare unfavorably to Northwestern's, meaning the Wildcats are now in position to, if they win out, and if Michigan loses to Ohio State, have the third-best résumé in the conference.
That would put a 10-2 Northwestern in the running for a New Year's Six Bowl. It would then come down to what plays out above NU in the rankings
Four Big 12 teams currently sit above Northwestern in the College Football Playoff rankings, but if the Wildcats win out, that's bound to change. Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and TCU have only played one game between them so far this season — Oklahoma State's win over TCU last week — so the rest of those matchups will occur over the season's final three weeks. At least one, and perhaps two teams should fall.
But Northwestern will need more help. Teams like Mississippi State and Florida State should pick up at least one more loss; the question will be whether a Michigan loss to Ohio State would drop the Wolverines below a 10-2 NU. What about a Michigan State loss to Ohio State? Even teams such as Utah and LSU are still susceptible to a collapse too. Northwestern would need plenty of attrition among teams currently ranked 8th through 17th.
But what if Northwestern doesn't win out?
In short, Michigan State's loss at Nebraska becomes a major negative for the Wildcats.
First, before an explanation of why that's the case, a refresher from last week on the order in which the Big Ten places teams in bowls, after the New Year's Six...
Friday, Jan. 1, noon CT
Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
Friday, Jan. 1, 11 a.m. CT
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Wednesday, Dec. 30, 9:30 p.m. CT
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
Music City Bowl (Dec. 30, Nashville, Tenn.) OR TaxSlayer Bowl (Jan. 2, Jacksonville, Fla.)*
*One, and only one, of these two bowls will feature a Big Ten team. Both bowls also have tie-ins with the ACC and Notre Dame. Since Northwestern played in the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl) in 2012, it would presumably be more likely to be chosen for the Music City Bowl.
Saturday, Dec. 26, 2:30 p.m. CT
Yankee Stadium, Bronx, N.Y.
Foster Farms Bowl
Saturday, Dec. 26, 8:15 p.m. CT
Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Quick Lane Bowl
Monday, Dec. 28, 4 p.m. CT
Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
Armed Forces Bowl
Tuesday, Dec. 29, 1 p.m. CT
Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Tex.
Opponent: Mountain West
... and on the Big Ten's selection process:
Back in 2013, there were reports that the Big Ten was adopting a new bowl selection system that would involve tiers. But according to a source, the idea of the tier system has been overblown. Instead, after the New Year's Six bowls have made their selections, the Big Ten assigns teams to bowls in the above order, from top to bottom, without considering any tiers.
So how does the Big Ten assign teams? Technically, there are no cut-and-dry criteria. Of course, the conference communicates with the bowl organizers — according to a Citrus Bowl spokesperson, the Citrus Bowl, unlike other bowls, technically has final say on team selection, rather than receiving an assignment — but the conference can assign any bowl eligible team to any of the bowls to which it has tie-ins. But for the most part, it assigns teams based on their records. For example, the Big Ten would not choose a 6-6 (4-4) Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl over a 9-3 (5-3) Northwestern. However, if Northwestern finishes, say, 9-3 (5-3) and Penn State finishes 8-4 (5-3) but with a win over NU, the conference would not be obligated to pick either team, and can exercise discretion.
An example of that discretion came last year, when the conference sent Penn State (6-6, 2-6) to the Pinstripe Bowl over Maryland (7-5, 4-4), Rutgers (7-5, 3-5) and Illinois (6-6, 3-5). If there were a tier system, Penn State would've been stuck in the bottom tier. The Pinstripe Bowl was supposedly a middle-tier game.
The Big Ten's most recent set of bowl agreements also includes a few stipulations designed to prevent repeat appearances, which is one of the reasons the conference doesn't adhere strictly to records. For example, in the agreements with the Citrus, Outback, Holiday and Foster Farms Bowls, the Big Ten has stated that at least five different teams will play in the given bowl over the six-year agreement. And in general, the conference's goal is to avoid sending a team to the same geographical area multiple years in a row.
So here's the conundrum. In the event that Northwestern loses to Wisconsin and goes 9-3 (5-3) — which, at the moment, is probably the most likely scenario — it could be ranked fairly indisputably behind five teams: Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Even with losses to both Penn State and Ohio State, Michigan would have the same conference record as Northwestern, and would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. It is also, overall, more attractive to bowl organizers than Northwestern.
The troubling development is that after Michigan State's loss to Nebraska, it's now more likely that the Big Ten only places two teams in New Year's Six bowls. That would likely mean the two Michigan schools go to the two top Florida bowl games (Citrus and Outback) and Wisconsin goes to the Holiday Bowl (the conference will try to avoid sending Wisconsin back to Florida after two straight appearances by the Badgers in the Sunshine State).
That would seemingly put Northwestern in either the Music City Bowl (more likely) or the TaxSlayer Bowl (less likely). But lurking behind NU would be Penn State, and next on the list of bowls would be the Pinstripe Bowl. However, the Nittany Lions went to the Pinstripe Bowl last year, so would not be sent to New York again this year. The Big Ten would therefore have a decision to make. Would it rather push Penn State up or down the ladder?
The answer to that question is unclear. It could easily send a 7-5 (4-4) Penn State to the Foster Farms Bowl, and it seems unlikely that the Nittany Lions would be chosen above Northwestern with two fewer wins. But on the other hand, below Penn State in the conference standings, there is... nothing. Illinois has the next best record, but has its three remaining games against Ohio State, at Minnesota and vs. Northwestern. In fact, there's a more-realistic-than-you-think chance that only seven Big Ten teams reach six wins. Would the conference choose a five-win bowl-eligible team over Penn State? Remember, last year, it chose 6-6 (2-6) Penn State for the Pinstripe Bowl over three teams that had better records.
Northwestern could render this discussion irrelevant with a win in Madison. It's unlikely that a 10-2 NU would be jumped by a 9-3 Wisconsin, so NU would be assured of at least the Holiday Bowl, provided at least two Big Ten teams make New Year's Six bowls. But things could get interesting — in a bad way — if the Wildcats don't win out.