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Northwestern bowl game: A guide to the Wildcats' potential destinations

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Plus, an in-depth explanation of the Big Ten's bowl selection system.

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With the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2015 season Tuesday, and with Northwestern already reaching the all-important six-win bench mark, it's time to start thinking about bowl games. The Wildcats will be bowling for the first time since 2012, when a nine-win regular season led them to the Gator Bowl. For numerous reasons, the Wildcats are in very good shape to get back to a hot destination in 2015.

Here's a breakdown of where the Wildcats could be headed, why, and how the Big Ten's bowl system works:

Does Northwestern have any shot at the College Football Playoff?

No. Next question.

Does Northwestern have any shot at a New Year's Six Bowl?

Yes, actually, even if it's an ever-so-slight one. The Wildcats aren't going to win the Big Ten, but under the new bowl system, the conference could actually get three, or even four, teams into New Year's Six Bowls. In fact, if the season were to end today, all three of Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa would be in. So presumably, if Ohio State were to win out and go to the College Football Playoff, Michigan State were to lose to Ohio State and finish 11-1, and Iowa were to go 12-0 and then lose to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, all three would make New Year's Six bowls.

If Ohio State were to go to the playoff, and two more Big Ten teams were to be ranked among the top 11, the Rose Bowl would have its pick between the two remaining teams. The other would go to either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl (in most years, it would be the Orange Bowl, but the Orange Bowl is hosting a Playoff semifinal in 2015-16).

The question is, would a 10-2 Northwestern, with wins over Stanford and Penn State and at Duke and Wisconsin, and losses to two other Top 25 teams, be in that top 11? For comparison's sake, would it jump a three-loss Michigan, who would have wins over NU and Penn State, and losses to Utah, Michigan State and Ohio State? It's a distinct possibility. The Wildcats have a strangely good resume, and were only four spots back of Michigan in the initial selection committee rankings. Amazingly, if they win out, they would have one of the top two-loss resumes in the country.

So who are Northwestern fans rooting for and against?

A tailspin for Michigan State would be lovely. So would, to a lesser extent, similar tumbles for Michigan and Iowa (to a lesser extent because Northwestern's strength of schedule would take a hit). And in general, any team between 10-20 in the rankings, aside from Stanford, is now a nemesis. If the two Oklahoma schools both lose to both TCU and Baylor, that would be huge. The Wildcats will need teams like Florida to slip up at least once more during the regular season, and then get blown out in the SEC Championship game.

What are the next best options, and how does the Big Ten's selection system work?

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 following order, from top to bottom, without considering any tiers:

For a complete bowl schedule, click here.

Citrus Bowl
Friday, Jan. 1, noon CT
Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
Opponent: SEC

Outback Bowl
Friday, Jan. 1, 11 a.m. CT
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Opponent: SEC

Holiday Bowl
Wednesday, Dec. 30, 9:30 p.m. CT
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
Opponent: Pac-12

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.

Pinstripe Bowl
Saturday, Dec. 26, 2:30 p.m. CT
Yankee Stadium, Bronx, N.Y.
Opponent: ACC

Foster Farms Bowl
Saturday, Dec. 26, 8:15 p.m. CT
Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Opponent: Pac-12

Quick Lane Bowl
Monday, Dec. 28, 4 p.m. CT
Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
Opponent: ACC

Armed Forces Bowl
Tuesday, Dec. 29, 1 p.m. CT
Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Tex.
Opponent: Mountain West

Note: This lineup is specific to the 2015 season. Many of the tie-ins are the same year-to-year, but, for example, the Big Ten alternates between the Armed Forces Bowl and the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Last year, Illinois played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, while the Armed Forces Bowl was played between Pittsburgh and Houston. This year, the Big Ten will place a team in the Armed Forces Bowl — provided there are enough bowl-eligible Big Ten teams — but not in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. See the official terms here.

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, say, Northwestern finishes 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.

What does that mean for this year? There appear to be two key cases. Wisconsin has been to the Capital One Bowl (now Citrus Bowl) and Outback Bowl the past two years, both of which are played in Florida, so it's very likely that the Badgers get sent to the Holiday Bowl this season. And Penn State will not be placed in the Pinstripe Bowl after its appearance last year. Additionally, if Iowa were to fall off a cliff, the Hawkeyes likely wouldn't go to either the Taxslayer Bowl or the Outback Bowl. But at this point, it seems unlikely that they would fall any further than the Citrus Bowl.

So where would Northwestern end up? The top three non-New Year's Six Bowls would all be good destinations. Given that Wisconsin looks like it will finish with eight or nine wins, the Badgers are a good bet for the Holiday Bowl. So a realistic goal for Northwestern would be either the Citrus or Outback Bowl. That would mean finishing in the top six of the conference if three teams make New Year's Six Bowls, and the top five if only two do.

Or, if the Wildcats finish outside the top five, but ahead of Wisconsin, NU could head to the Holiday Bowl, while the Badgers could be bumped down to the Music City Bowl. If Northwestern finishes seventh in the conference — behind Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin — the Music City Bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl, both intriguing destinations, would be likely. It would take an epic collapse for NU to slip into Quick Lane Bowl territory.

One of the big takeaways here is the importance of this Saturday's game. If Northwestern can beat Penn State, it all but clinches a better finish than the Nittany Lions, and therefore likely a better bowl, with Michigan State and Michigan still to come on Penn State's schedule.

Another takeaway is that if the possibility of a New Year's Six Bowl has been quashed, Northwestern would be hoping for three of Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan to make New Year's Six bowls.

But no matter what, because there is such a clear divide between the top seven of the Big Ten and the bottom seven, Northwestern is in really good shape.