In a literal sense, the outcomes of all non-playoff bowl games aren't all that important. Individual circumstances of course vary, and the games do mean something, be it something as meaningful (or meaningless) as bragging rights.
For Northwestern, what exactly is at stake Friday?
Well, for one thing, there’s a 10-win season on the line.
That is an arbitrary number, but NU has only won 10 games four times in program history, and one of those came in 1903. Beating Kentucky would give Pat Fitzgerald his third double-digit win campaign, which isn't anything to scoff at.
Winning 10 games is a benchmark that many teams don't get to consistently, and should be a goal, albeit a secondary one to goals within the division and conference.
What's more important than the 10 wins, though, at least with regard to the trajectory of the program in a broader sense, is respect.
Beating a 7-5 Kentucky team won't exactly earn NU, or the Big Ten, a ton of national praise. Losing, however, would be a major on knock on NU's season, as well as the Big Ten. It wouldn't negate the success the Wildcats had in the Big Ten, but it would make that debacle at Duke and at home against Penn State less like an anomaly than an accurate indicator of just how good NU and the Big Ten are.
Using bowl results to make definitive statements is tricky, and is not a perfect way to judge conferences, but people will do it anyway. It's unclear how much bowl results factor into the College Football Playoff Committee’s decision making in the following season — it may be minuscule — but it's hard to imagine that it counts for nothing.
If Northwestern was ever in a dogfight for a New Year's Six bowl, or the Playoff itself in the future, the national perception of NU would be important in that decision, and past bowl performance, which would obviously include the Music City Bowl, could factor into that perception.
There's also a different component to the impact a bowl win could have on how others view the program: recruiting. As arbitrary as the 10-win threshold may be, that, along with a bowl win, is something Fitzgerald can use to lure recruits to Evanston. Momentum from a nationally televised bowl victory, and back-to-back bowl victories, no less, could potentially sway a 2018 recruit or two ahead of the February signing period, as well as provide a jumping off point for Fitzgerald to use when he's in the living rooms of 2019 prospects.
From a program perspective, there probably isn't a clear cause-and-effect from winning your last game to starting fast the next fall, but having a good taste in your mouth during the offseason seems like it'd be preferable for the players.
For the seniors — Justin Jackson, Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro, Tyler Lancaster and many others — there's something to be said for going out with a win and finishing things right. This senior class has helped spur an incredibly successful four years, especially in the context of Northwestern's past, so leaving with a win would be fitting.
One football game will not define an entire season, but, when you only play 12 or 13 times, each contest carries significant weight and meaning. Winning against Kentucky would be the first time Northwestern won bowl games in back-to-back years, and it would help legitimize NU's scorching-hot close to the season. It could help in recruiting and of course, would make the Big Ten look better.
All of that is on the line Friday afternoon in Nashville.