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An in-depth look at Northwestern’s bowl prospects

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The middle of the Big Ten is murky, and so are its bowl prospects.

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

After silencing any remaining doubters of Northwestern’s status as Chicago’s Big Ten Team with its sixth win of the season against rival Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald’s team also locked up a definite bowl berth on Saturday.

The rest of the Big Ten will also have a bevy of games to send teams to, given that 10 teams from the conference are bowl-eligible this year. That alone is its own exciting article that will hopefully be written soon, especially given that four of those teams are ranked in the top seven in the CFP rankings as of the end of Week 13. Where the committee sends Penn State given Michigan’s impressive season (and head-to-head victory over the Nittany Lions) will say a lot about this College Football Playoff and its selection process.

UPDATE: With Penn State missing out on the playoff, the Nittany Lions will go to the Rose Bowl.

Despite the Big Ten’s dominance this year in the top of the rankings, the rest of the conference’s bowl-eligible teams failed to crack the top 25. This leaves Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana and Maryland to fight for the most glamorous of the non-CFP bowls that have tie-ins to the Big Ten.

As far as the Big Ten goes, the way the selection process works involves the bowls themselves submitting the teams they’d like in their games, and the conference will approve or deny the submission from there. The only big restriction that plays a role in selection year to year is that Big Ten teams can’t go to the same bowl two years in a row.

The bowls have a draft order of sorts after the CFP and New Year’s Six get their pick. Generally, the closer a bowl is to New Year’s Day, the sooner they get to pick. The Holiday and Outback bowls go first, Pinstripe, Music City/TaxSlayer and Foster Farms go next, and finally the Quick Lane and Heart of Dallas bowls get their say, with the third- and fourth-tier bowls rotating first choice every year.

Here are Northwestern’s bowl projections last week, before the Illinois game. Things haven’t changed much this week. The middle tier of bowls are the likely destination, with the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium as a slight favorite over the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara. However, as is the theme with almost anything related to college football, anything can happen. But that’s why we love it.

So let’s take it bowl-by-bowl and see where Northwestern could land:

Outback Bowl/Holiday Bowl:

OK fine so maybe not strictly bowl-by-bowl, but to spare redundancy, we’re going to lump these two together as they get first pick after the CFP and New Year’s Six bowls are decided. As much as Northwestern fans would like to forget about last year’s Outback Bowl, it’s important to remember that the Wildcats needed a 10-2 record and a second-place finish in the West to reach it. That obviously did not happen this year.

So (pretty safely) assuming that OSU, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State all make a CFP/NY6 bowl, these two bowls will host the two next-best teams in the Big Ten, and those two teams are Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 B1G) and Iowa (8-4, 6-3 B1G). Who goes where between these two teams could be its own article. The Big Ten and bowls themselves place a huge emphasis on fresh destinations year to year, and that’s what I think it’ll come down to. Iowa has played in the Outback Bowl three times since 2003, and Nebraska has never been. Similarly, Nebraska has been to the Holiday Bowl three times since 2009, and Iowa’s last appearance was in 1991.

Nebraska gets to go to Tampa, and Iowa does battle in the Holiday Bowl.

Music City Bowl:

No article that I’ve come across has Northwestern projected to go here. It’s a Big Ten vs. SEC matchup this year. Geography is important when choosing bowl teams, and the closest eligible teams to Nashville are Indiana from the Big Ten and Kentucky/Vanderbilt from the SEC.

Kentucky had a heck of a season and ended it with a win over Louisville and will probably get this late-December game over Vanderbilt. I say Nashville will see an Indiana vs. Kentucky matchup this year. Both schools are close, and the fanbases will have even more incentive to watch their schools play the other given the intense basketball rivalry already established between IU and Kentucky.

Indiana has also never played in the Music City Bowl, and that will be the tipping point in sending it to Tennessee for the postseason.

Pinstripe Bowl:

As was mentioned before, this is where most experts predict Northwestern will land, and it will fight with Minnesota and Maryland for the right to do so. Indiana played in the Pinstripe Bowl last year, so it has essentially no chance of going back.

This is a relatively highly-sought-after bowl in this group, and will therefore probably be awarded to the next best team in the conference after Nebraska and Iowa.

This is where it gets fun (or frustrating) depending on how much is riding on the success of your bowl predictions. Minnesota beat Northwestern and Maryland, and Northwestern beat Indiana (who won’t play here because they did last year). Maryland got thoroughly dominated by a few teams that Minnesota and Northwestern played against in a more respectable fashion. Given all this, it becomes a toss-up between Northwestern and Minnesota.

Geographically, New York is slightly closer to Northwestern than it is to Minnesota. One of these two schools is notorious for having a fanbase that doesn’t travel well to bowl games, let alone home games. Every mile counts.

Northwestern gets to play at Yankee Stadium instead of Minnesota.

Foster Farms Bowl:

First off, Maryland won’t be going to Santa Clara because it was there last year. This bowl is the other side of the coin in the toss-up between NU and Minnesota. Whoever doesn’t go to New York will probably go here, and vice versa.

This B1G vs. Pac-12 bowl does have very real potential for a Northwestern-Stanford rematch, a little over one year removed from one of the most unexpected upsets in Wildcat history, but Minnesota fans travel better, and could theoretically then lead to more money coming in for the Foster Farms Bowl.

I’ll send the Gophers here.

Quick Lane Bowl:

I’m probably one of the few people in Evanston who’ll ever advocate a team should go to play a bowl (or any) game in Detroit, so much to my chagrin, this bowl is viewed as a consolation prize as far as this crop of bowl games goes. Personally, I’m going to tell myself the lack of prestige is due to it being the furthest bowl away from New Year’s so that I can cry into a box of tissues as opposed to my Calvin Johnson jersey.

Minnesota off the bat won’t play here because it was selected last year, so that leaves Maryland, Northwestern, and Indiana. Given the above predictions and Maryland’s aggressively average showing this year, the Terrapins get to go to Ford Field this Christmas.

Heart of Dallas Bowl:

This is the least prestigious of the bowls that could be filled by the Big Ten this year. Given that there is one more bowl than there are bowl-eligible B1G teams, this one probably won’t be filled, and will instead host a Conference USA vs. at-large matchup, as was the case in 2014 when UNLV was chosen over a Big Ten team due to the B1G not having enough bowl-eligible teams.

An Expert Weighs In:

ESPN’s Brett McMurphy is one of the experts who regularly releases his bowl projections, especially in the later weeks of the season. I reached out to him to get some insight as to how the pros do for a living what I just tried to do for fun.

Bottom Line:

If predicting bowls could be said to be a science, it’s a science in its infancy, with a few basic rules in place, but a lot of lawless territory. Fun, but lawless. That being said, here are my shortened predictions for where the middle of the Big Ten will end up come late December:

Outback Bowl (Jan. 2)/Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27): Not going to happen. (Nebraska, Iowa)

Music City Bowl (Dec. 30): “Yeah well just wait ‘til basketball season!” said more Indiana fans than Northwestern fans (Indiana)

Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 28): Who doesn’t love Christmas in New York? (Northwestern)

Foster Farms Bowl (Dec. 28): Northwestern’s fanbase doesn’t travel too well, and California is far (Minnesota)

Quick Lane Bowl (Dec. 26): The great city of Detroit could host the Wildcats, but will likely not do so (Maryland)

Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dec. 27): Technically there’s a chance, but no.

Regardless of where the Wildcats land, given the roller coaster of a season they just finished and how expectations shifted after a 1-3 start, any bowl game is something to cheer, and cheer hard about, no matter where it occurs.