Northwestern jumped to No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings after beating Wisconsin, moving the Wildcats closer to the possibility of a New Year's Six bowl. The New Year's Six bowls — this year, the Sugar, Fiesta, Rose and Peach bowls — are the most prestigious bowls outside of the Playoff, and they're assigned by the selection committee. If NU does sneak in, it would go to one of the bowls with at-large spots, the Fiesta and Peach bowls.
With only Illinois standing in the way of a 10-2 season, NU does have a chance to sneak into one of those top tier bowl games. The Wildcats need to be in the top 11 (or the top 12, if Navy somehow gets into the top 11) to get there.
Here's the group of rankings we're most interested in:
8. Ohio State (10-1)
9. Stanford (9-2)
10. Michigan (9-2)
11. Oklahoma State (10-1)
12. Florida (10-1)
13. Florida State (9-2)
14. North Carolina (10-1)
15. Navy (9-1)
16. Northwestern (9-2)
17. Oregon (8-3)
18. Ole Miss (8-3)
19. TCU (9-2)
So here are the games to pay attention to and your rooting interests over the last couple weeks of the season in order for the Wildcats to have a chance of getting to a New Year's Six bowl:
Northwestern needs to win big over Illinois
This game won't help the resume, but the one thing the Wildcats don't have going for them is that they're very bad, according to the "eye test." The resume is plenty good enough for NU to be one of the top two-loss teams considered. Winning big would prove to the committee that the wins weren't fluky.
Oklahoma big over Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State dropped all the way down to No. 11 after losing to Baylor, because the Cowboys' only good win is over a TCU team that keeps dropping. A big home loss to Oklahoma could drop them below Northwestern.
Florida over Florida State
Florida State should probably already be below Northwestern. The Seminoles don't have any good wins, and they've lost to both Clemson (respectable) and 3-8 Georgia Tech. FSU is a popular pick to get the last at-large spot, but that's predicated on beating Florida. Florida could very well drop that far, too, but the Gators have the "division champion" title that Northwestern doesn't, and those titles are important to the committee. Cheer for Florida.
NC State and/or Clemson over North Carolina
I tend to think the committee isn't going to punish teams for losing conference championship games, so perhaps North Carolina will stay ahead of NU by simply beating NC State. But the committee really doesn't like the Tar Heels, who have no top 25 wins and played two FCS teams, while also managing to lose to South Carolina. If UNC is dominated by Clemson in the ACC championship game, maybe the Tar Heels take a tumble. If they lose to NC State, NU gets a free spot.
Mississippi State over Ole Miss
I think Ole Miss jumps NU with a win over Mississippi State. I don't think Mississippi State jumps NU by beating Ole Miss.
Baylor over TCU
TCU probably jumps NU with a win over Baylor. A TCU loss makes all the other wins over TCU look worse. The following week, Baylor probably wouldn't drop below NU with a loss to Texas, but it can't hurt for that to happen, too.
Michigan wins big over Ohio State
Even at 9-3, Michigan isn't going to drop below 10-2 NU. The best chance is for an Ohio State team with no good wins to get absolutely blown out of the water in Ann Arbor.
Stanford doesn't matter
The Pac-12 Champion is going to the Rose Bowl. Stanford is either going to get that autobid or drop out and be replaced by another Pac-12 team. Don't worry about them. In fact, for the sake of Northwestern's strength of schedule, it might be best for NU if the Cardinal keep on winning.
Edit: Stanford beating Notre Dame 38-0, I guess
Y'all are right. If this happens, Notre Dame would drop a lot. But that very likely isn't going to happen, and even if Notre Dame loses by two scores, I don't see the committee dropping them all the way past NU, given what they think of them now.
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So in this scenario, here's how the bowls could potentially play out:
College Football Playoff
Orange: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
Cotton: Alabama vs. Iowa/Michigan State
New Year's Six
Rose: Stanford vs. Iowa/Michigan State
Sugar: Baylor vs. Florida
Fiesta: Notre Dame vs. Michigan
Peach: Navy vs. Northwestern
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So is all of this going to happen? Probably not! But these scenarios aren't crazy. Some of this will depend on the committee shifting more to "résumé" and away from the "eye test" as more results come in, but it's reasonable to think that will happen. Either way, the Outback Bowl is still cool and NU has a lot of great options this bowl season. But if you want to see how the Wildcats can end up on college football's biggest stage, this is the best bet.