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Northwestern’s path to a bowl game

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With six, or even five, wins, NU can reach the postseason again. Surprisingly, both numbers are still wholly reachable.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of a season full of disappointment, Northwestern will enter their Big Ten Championship rematch with Ohio State next Friday night at Ryan Field sitting at 1-4.

The Wildcats will almost certainly not have the chance to meet their preseason expectations of recapturing the Big Ten West and potentially even taking the conference championship this time around. Instead, at 1-4, NU will spend the rest of the year fighting for a bowl game.

Before analyzing the different scenarios in which Northwestern could somehow get to 5 (with, once again, a top APR score, they would be the second 5-7 team, behind Air Force, selected if there aren’t enough .500 or better squads) or 6 wins and reach the postseason, it is important to recognize which bowl games are still at stake. Obviously, the Wildcats will not make the College Football Playoff, a NY6 bowl game or any other prestigious bowl game near New Year’s Day.

As a result, we can cross off the Rose Bowl, Citrus Bowl and Outback Bowl, the three bowl games considered top tier for Big Ten teams. In addition, NU will not compete in the Holiday Bowl again after winning it last year over Utah. The final tier of potentially excluded bowl games includes the Gator Bowl game and the Music City Bowl. In all probability, Northwestern will not appear in either game. Of course, if the Wildcats were to somehow beat Ohio State, spots in those two contests (and maybe even a couple a few rungs up the ladder) would suddenly look plausible.

A key factor to consider when thinking about potential postseason play is the team’s upcoming games. Here is Northwestern’s remaining schedule and ESPN’S FPI metric (in italics) alongside Bill Connelly’s SP+ (in bold) projecting the chance NU has to win each game:

Vs #3 Ohio State (3.6%) (4.1%)

Vs #17 Iowa (22.9%) (21.8%)

@ Indiana (33.4%) (19.2%)

Vs Purdue (68.7%) (57.4%)

Vs UMass (98.7%) (97.0%)

Vs Minnesota (42.1%) (24.8%)

@ Illinois (65.1%) (45.8%)

The FPI projection gives Northwestern 3.34 expected wins to close out the season (not including the one they have already), while SP+, always a bit less bullish, allows them just 2.70. Either way, though, the median prediction by the numbers would give NU four wins total, just short of the number the team needs.

Clearly, even given the somewhat decent chance that at least one 5-win squad is accepted into the postseason, the Wildcats face an uphill battle to make a bowl game. SP+ gives them a 16.8% chance to finish 5-7, and only a 4.3% chance of doing any better than that. Still, with what we’ve seen in recent seasons, it’s hard to rule out a late-year surge (after the Ohio State game, of course).

It is unlikely that the Wildcats beat Iowa, but the two teams play similar brands of football and Pat Fitzgerald has a knack for knocking off good Iowa teams, especially when he is having a rough season himself. And after Iowa, every game is winnable for Northwestern. The team is not projected to beat Indiana or Minnesota, but those certainly aren’t out of the realm of possibility if this team catches fire.

With 39 total bowl games (excluding the national championship this year), 78 out of 130 FBS teams will be involved in postseason play, the odds of at least one or two 5-7 entrants seem likelier than ever. And though it may seem unlikely that the ‘Cats will even get there right now, no NU team has finished with a worse record than 5-7 since Pat Fitzgerald’s first year all the way back in 2006.

If they can find a way to at least turn the season around enough to scratch across five wins, here are the bowl games that Northwestern fans could anticipate for the ‘Cats:

The New Era Pinstripe Bowl vs ACC (December 27, 2019 at Yankee Stadium on ESPN)

Among the remaining bowl games, the Pinstripe Bowl is the least likely possibility for Northwestern. The Wildcats beat Pittsburgh 31-24 in the 2016 bowl game, so the bowl will likely opt for a new team to represent the Big Ten. It is still possible for NU to play in the game, though, as Syracuse played in the game twice in a three-year stretch from 2010-2012. Rutgers appeared twice in three bowl seasons from 2011-2013, and Boston College appeared twice in a four year stretch from 2014-2017.

In order to travel towards their strong New York contingent of fans once again, the Wildcats would need to finish the season at 6-6 or 7-5. Assuming Ohio State is a loss, Northwestern would need to win at least five of six remaining games, which isn’t exactly likely. We’ll believe it when we see it.

The Redbox Bowl vs Pac-12 (December 30, 2019 at Levi’s Stadium on FOX)

Prior to 2018, this game was known as the Foster Farms Bowl. Last season, Michigan State appeared in the game with seven wins. In 2016 and 2017, Indiana and Purdue represented the Big Ten out in San Francisco, with each team having won at least six regular season games.

NU would likely need six or seven wins to appear in this game, but the Redbox Bowl has reached an agreement for five different Big Ten teams to appear in the game in six years. Thus, the committee will be hesitant to take Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Nebraska and Purdue. If there aren’t any other options around that six/seven win mark, the Wildcats could slip in at 5-7.

Quick Lane Bowl vs ACC or MAC (December 26, 2019 at Ford Field on ESPN)

Sigh. This is certainly the least interesting postseason option. With six wins, Northwestern can make the Quick Lane Bowl. But the trip to Detroit also has the distinction of being the most likely Wildcat destination if the team falls a win short of the typical total needed for bowl eligibility. The last time a five-win team appeared in the Quick Lane Bowl was Minnesota in 2015.

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl vs MWC (January 4, 2020 at Amon. G Carter Stadium on ESPN)

This, on the other hand, would be a fun one! The game is played at TCU’s football stadium and typically features one of the military schools in Army, Navy or Air Force (the only team to edge out Northwestern in Academic Progress Rate this season). Last season, Army beat Houston 70-14. Cal-Berkeley is the last power five school to appear in this game, doing so with seven regular season wins in 2015. Pittsburgh played in the game a year before with six regular season wins. It appears unlikely that Northwestern could appear in this game with five wins, but certainly not beyond the pale.