As late as Tuesday afternoon, Northwestern could make a claim for a New Year's Six bowl. It was always unlikely, but there was a shot. Basically, the Wildcats had to finish the season ranked ahead of Florida State, North Carolina, Michigan, and either Baylor or TCU.
When the College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday night, that hope was basically crushed. Now ranked No. 14 and solidly behind FSU, UNC, Baylor, TCU and Ole Miss, the Wildcats' chance at the upper echelon of bowls is all but gone.
But fear not. As our Henry Bushnell pointed out, "realize that 10 wins and a trip to the Outback Bowl is a pretty darn good consolation prize." Along with the Outback Bowl, the Citrus Bowl (which is slotted one spot higher than the Outback Bowl in the selection order) has confirmed it will likely be choosing between No. 15 Michigan and No. 14 Northwestern as its Big Ten representative.
With that, here are the bowl projections for this week, with a bit of added analysis regarding the potential opponent.
Jason Kirk: Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee, Jan. 1
Kirk has had this matchup pegged for a couple weeks now and in a weak SEC this year, an 8-4 Tennessee team could very well sneak into this New Year's Day bowl. Now ranked No. 25 in the latest Playoff rankings, the Volunteers' most impressive win this season, according to S&P+, was a 59-30 victory over Bowling Green in Week 1.
Mark Schlabach: Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee, Jan. 1
Brett McMurphy: Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee, Jan. 1
Well would you look at that? It's Tennessee again! I think we'll get to know the Volunteers well by the end of this article. Did you know that Tennessee had one of the best first quarter offenses and defenses in the country this season? The team ranked fourth in first quarter offense and 11th in first quarter defense, according to S&P+. Good thing a football game is four quarters, right?
Jerry Palm: Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee, Jan. 1
Wait... what's that sound? It's getting louder, and louder, and lo -- OH MY GOD IT'S TENNESSEE AGAIN. Northwestern and Tennessee have played one time against each other. The two programs, which have combined for six national titles, faced off in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 1997. The Vols won 48-28, led by Peyton Manning, who torched Northwestern for 408 yards and four touchdowns.
Stewart Mandel: Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee, Jan. 1
DING! DING! DING! We've hit for the cycle, folks. Four bowl projection sources and they've all slated Northwestern vs. Tennessee in the "Australian" Steak House Bowl. We've got one more left... surely nothing could get in the way of perfection now...
Zac Ellis: TaxSlayer Bowl vs. LSU, Jan. 2
Wait. What? WHAT? Northwestern vs. LSU in the TaxSlayer Bowl? Wow. We were so close. But then Zac Ellis happened. The TaxSlayer Bowl? Come. On. Ellis has Wisconsin vs. Florida in the Citrus Bowl and Michigan vs. Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. The odd thing is, the Citrus Bowl, as mentioned earlier, has ALREADY CONFIRMED THAT IT IS CHOOSING BETWEEN MICHIGAN AND NORTHWESTERN (assuming Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State make New Year's Six bowls). Thus, the team that doesn't get it, most likely Northwestern, will be bumped one spot down the ladder, to the Outback Bowl. Wisconsin also went to the Outback Bowl last year and the Citrus Bowl — then the Capital One Bowl — two years ago, so why the heck would the Big Ten have them go back to Florida ahead of a team that finished with a better record than the Badgers and beat them head to head?
Regardless, we were one away from a perfect five-for-five. And just like Tennessee did against Alabama and Florida this season, these projections collapsed. Take it away, Manning face.