For the past several seasons, Northwestern’s seasons have been pretty clearly defined by a single game or even a small set of games. The 2013 Wildcats were defined by Ohio State, a brutal loss in the program’s most important game of the millennium, and the fallout after. In 2014, one could point to Northwestern’s shocking win over Notre Dame in South Bend — surely the highlight of the year by a long shot — but the Wildcats were defined by its season-ending loss to Illinois. A combination of bad luck and underachievement led that team to a second straight bowl-less campaign. Then there was 2015. The Wildcats won 10 games but were blown out in three of its four biggest games, including the Outback Bowl against Tennessee, showing the limited ceiling of that team.
And now Northwestern is here at 6-6. After a season that has been chock full of ups and downs, the Wildcats could have been defined by their abysmal start, but instead still managed to reach the postseason, a first-time feat for the program after a 0-2 start. They could have been defined by a three-game winning streak in the middle of October, suddenly putting themselves in contention in the Big Ten West, but a narrow loss to Ohio State and significant losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota put a damper on their midseason surge.
What is to be made of this season? A team that missed out on opportunities to contend in the Big Ten West? A team that rebounded from a nightmarish start to salvage a bowl berth, defeat its biggest rivals, Iowa and Illinois? Somewhere in between?
The truth lies somewhere in the middle and that’s why Northwestern’s 2016 will be remembered by its bowl game.
The Wildcats are going to end up in a third tier bowl — the popular destinations from experts are the Pinstripe Bowl and the Foster Farms Bowl — and play, in all likelihood, a similarly middle-of-the-pack Power Five team. The Pinstripe has ties with the Big Ten and the ACC while Foster Farms would land Northwestern a Pac-12 foe.
This leaves Northwestern with one final opportunity to define itself. The general consensus surrounding this team is that it is better than its record. Had they not massively underachieved early in the year, the Wildcats would have a much different outlook, both in the win-loss column and in how we perceive the success of this team as a whole.
Right now, it’s tough to pass judgment on this team. It’s a team that persevered through a bad start, played good football for a spell and fell somewhat flat in the final month. Per S&P+, the most comprehensive measure of a team’s performance and overall skill, this is Pat Fitzgerald’s second-best team ever. But you look at win-loss record, the team falls pretty squarely in the middle.
If Northwestern is truly better than its record as the advanced stats would suggest, it has the chance to prove it. Finishing the season with a bowl win would not only give the team a record over .500, but it would show a team that truly rebounded from a brutal start to win seven of its last 11 games. Also, Northwestern would get a bowl win, which is nothing to sneeze at given the team’s history. Of teams with at least 10 bowl game appearances, Northwestern has the worst winning percentage at 2-10. Winning a bowl game — especially after a season that most deem a disappointment in the win-loss column — would be an important and very positive way to end the year and give the fanbase hope.
But if Northwestern were to lose its bowl game, it would mean a losing record following a double-digit win season, questions about this staff’s ability to prepare for and win big games. Whatever team Northwestern draws this postseason will be beatable, especially according to S&P+, and to lose would create a feeling that this team, instead of rebounding from a bad start, never reached its full potential. And even if beating a mediocre team doesn’t say that much about this team this year, per se, it would be important for the program and for Pat Fitzgerald’s bowl legacy, one that certainly could use some help.
While this team’s record probably does not accurately reflect its skill, Northwestern has to prove that, rather than pride itself on making a bowl after a rough start. A bowl game needs to be the baseline, not the end goal. Thus, winning a very winnable bowl game would somewhat salvage a difficult season and be an important second step for this program.