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Northwestern bowl scenario guide

A comprehensive look at the world of possibilities NU faces when it comes to where they’ll be playing in December (or January).

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a spirited comeback effort, Northwestern lost to Notre Dame, leaving NU with a winless non-conference slate. Have no fear though, because Northwestern still retains a strong chance of representing the Big Ten West in Indianapolis. Because of this, there is a multitude of scenarios regarding Northwestern’s postseason destination. Let’s look at the prospects the Wildcats have in front of them.

Big Ten Bowl Partnerships

-Rose Bowl: Jan. 1, 2019. Pasadena, CA

-Outback Bowl: Jan. 1, 2019. Tampa, FL

-Citrus Bowl: Jan. 1, 2019. Orlando, FL

-Taxslayer Bowl: Dec. 31, 2018. Jacksonville, FL

-Holiday Bowl: Dec. 31, 2018. San Diego, CA

-Redbox Bowl: Dec. 31, 2018. Santa Clara, CA

-Music City Bowl: Dec. 28, 2018. Nashville, TN

-Pinstripe Bowl: Dec. 27, 2018: Bronx, NY

-Quick Lane Bowl: Dec. 26, 2018: Detroit, MI

-First Responder Bowl: Dec. 26, 2018: Dallas, TX

-Armed Forces Bowl:, Dec. 22, 2018: Fort Worth, TX

Big Ten Bowl Parameters

The Big Ten holds partnerships with numerous bowls that allot certain bids solely for Big Ten teams. The process of bowl selection isn’t a basic process, however, as there are numerous guidelines regulating which team can go to which bowl.

You can find the most recent list of guidelines here, but I’ll explain the basics.

1. The Rose Bowl will take the Big Ten Champion if it is not participating in the College Football Playoff. If the Big Ten Champion makes the playoff, the Rose Bowl will select a team based on a combination of factors such as ranking, division champions, and head-to-head play.

2. No team will play in a non-CFP or Rose Bowl game two years in a row.

3. The Outback Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Redbox Bowl, Citrus Bowl, and Pinstripe Bowl all require at least five different Big Ten Teams participate over the course of the contracts.

4. The Armed Forces Bowl, Quick Lane Bowl, and First Responder Bowl will select an eligible Big Ten team, subject to approval from the conference.

Essentially, the goal of these bowl agreements and rules is to create diversity in bowl participants while allowing the bowls and the Big Ten to create matchups that will create better ratings.

Northwestern Bowl Possibilities

-If Northwestern wins the Big Ten Championship Game

If Northwestern is able to capitalize on its position in the division, they open up a big-time opportunity in the form of the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl. With a win in the title game, Northwestern would automatically qualify for a place in Pasadena. Simple enough.

-If Northwestern loses the Big Ten Championship Game and has 5 losses

If an underdog Northwestern team falters to a likely top-10 Big Ten East champion, it gets much more complicated. A Northwestern team that wasn’t able to earn a non-conference win and lost to Akron will not be an attractive option for bowls to request. However, how Northwestern finishes the regular season will have a large impact on their positioning. A five-loss Northwestern team faces a much different prospect than a six or seven loss squad.

Let’s say Northwestern beats Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, before dropping the Big Ten Championship. NU would be sitting at 8-5 with quality wins against Wisconsin, @MSU, @Iowa, and @Purdue. NU can’t participate in the Music City Bowl this year, as they participated last year, nor the Pinstripe Bowl, which hosted Northwestern two years ago.

If the Big Ten champion were to make the College Football Playoff, another Big Ten team would almost certainly be selected for the Rose Bowl. If the Big Ten champion were to not make the playoff, that Big Ten champ would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. That likely leaves Northwestern competing with one of Michigan and Ohio State for bowl bids, as well as Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin.

In this scenario, one of those non-NU teams would account for the Music City Bowl, and one might find themselves in the Pinstripe Bowl. In all likelihood, Northwestern would either end up in the Holiday Bowl or the Outback Bowl.

If Northwestern loses the Big Ten Championship Game and has 6 or 7 losses.

This is a situation in which Northwestern has a very wide spectrum of possibilities. Depending on the extent to which bowls respect Northwestern’s résumé, they could be placed as highly as the Holiday Bowl, or in the bottom tier of bowls, such as the Redbox Bowl or the Quick Lane Bowl. There really is no telling what the bowls and Big Ten would choose to do, but in totality, Northwestern could be put into the Holiday Bowl, Taxslayer Bowl, Redbox Bowl, Outback Bowl, Armed Forces Bowl, or First Responder Bowl.

Or, Northwestern could just do itself a favor and win the Big Ten Championship game.

If Northwestern does not qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game

In the event that the rest of the season totally goes haywire and Northwestern drops two or more of their final three games to lose their place atop the Big Ten West, the team’s potential bowl destinations are more narrow. You can most certainly take the Holiday Bowl and Outback Bowl out of the picture.

With bowl restrictions, NU would be left with the Taxslayer Bowl, the Redbox Bowl, the Armed Forces bowl, the First Responder Bowl, and the Quick Lane Bowl. The most “prestigious” bowls out of this crew would be the Taxslayer Bowl and Redbox Bowl, but Northwestern would probably be placed in a bottom tier bowl.


Obviously, the most fruitful path for Northwestern comes by route of winning the Big Ten Championship. Beyond that, it comes down to how Northwestern performs in their final 3-plus games of the season. If it is able to take three regular season games before losing to the East Champion, for example, they’ll be in a much more positive position than if it wins only one of their final three games.

If Northwestern finishes the season with eight wins, but no Big Ten Title, it’s probable that they’ll end up in the Outback Bowl or Holiday Bowl. If NU has six or seven wins, it’s more likely that they’ll be placed in the Redbox Bowl or Taxslayer Bowl, or worse. Still, there’s no way of knowing how bowls and the Big Ten will evaluate and place them.

For now, it’s time to focus on Iowa.