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Breaking down Northwestern’s postseason scenarios

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The ‘Cats still have a lot to play for following a tough loss to Michigan State.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Holiday Bowl - Northwestern v Utah Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In a week where there was not much to celebrate for Northwestern fans, good news came in the most 2020 way possible. NU essentially clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship through the cancelation of its Minnesota matchup, barring any major scheduling or championship game eligibility changes from the conference. Even if the Wildcats lose to Illinois next weekend, the team would earn a trip to Indy as long as three total Big Ten games are played over the next two weeks.

However the loss to Michigan State diminishes the Wildcats’ chances at a New Year’s Six bowl, and the matchup on December 19 will still have significant implications as to NU’s postseason placement. Let’s take a look at how the remainder of Northwestern’s schedule could play out.

Loss vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship

Northwestern will most likely face No. 4 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship unless either the Buckeyes’ or their Week Eight opponent Michigan’s COVID situation worsens. Given recent history and OSU’s expectations to be a Playoff team, NU could likely drop another conference championship matchup to the Buckeyes for the second time in three years.

Based on the results of other conference championship games, a two-loss Northwestern team would be effectively removed from New Year’s Six Bowl contention, as it likely would not finish in the top 12.

In this spot, the ‘Cats would most likely receive a bid as the Big Ten’s second-ranked team to either the Citrus Bowl in Orlando or the Outback Bowl in Tampa. Both of these games would feature matchups against SEC opponents.

Assuming Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M and possibly even Georgia all receive invites to respective New Year’s Six games, that would leave Auburn or another strong-finishing SEC team as Northwestern’s likely opponent. While obviously not as appealing as the College Football Playoff or a NY6 bowl, either should be considered a major accomplishment after last season’s miserable finish.

Win vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship

While it is a tough ask for any team, Northwestern would have a chance to take down the College Football Playoff-bound Buckeyes. A win in Indy would guarantee the ‘Cats a spot in one of four possible New Year’s Six bowl games — most likely the Peach Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or Cotton Bowl. The Big Ten’s automatic bid is usually awarded the coveted Rose Bowl, but this year, that matchup is one of two sites slated to host the College Football Playoff National Semifinals.

Even with a win over the Buckeyes in Indianapolis, the College Football Playoff is a long shot unless absolute chaos unfolds in the coming weeks. Should some giants unexpectedly fall, the committee has shown throughout the years that the so-called “eye-test” really just rewards brand recognition. So, a one-loss Northwestern team could easily be overlooked for a two-loss Clemson or Florida, Texas A&M with no SEC championship game berth or an undefeated mid-major team like Cincinnati.

Northwestern faces Indiana in the Big Ten title game

A third possible situation is one in which the Buckeyes do not qualify for the Big Ten Championship due to playing an insufficient amount of games. The Buckeyes have battled a COVID outbreak within their own program, which resulted in the cancelation of their Illinois game last week. However, it appears OSU has gotten the virus under control as they are set to play Michigan State on Saturday.

Yet the fate of the Buckeyes’ conference championship hopes could be in the hands of their rival Michigan, who has a serious outbreak of its own and had to cancel its matchup with Maryland this weekend. If the Wolverines have to cancel next week’s matchup as well, the Buckeyes would be eliminated from the running for the Big Ten title with only five total games played — as long as the conference does not adjust any rules in their favor.

As a result, Northwestern would match up with Indiana in the Big Ten Championship. A win versus IU would earn Northwestern its first Big Ten title in two decades and likely result in a NY6 berth even if the committee gives still gives Ohio State a spot in the Playoff.

A loss versus IU puts Northwestern in an extremely tough position. Losses to Michigan State and an Indiana squad with no Michael Penix Jr. might drop the ‘Cats to fourth in the Big Ten bowl game pecking order. That would push NU toward a return to the Music City Bowl, where it would face an SEC opponent.