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Halfway through 2023, Northwestern’s bowl hopes are still very much alive

While the road is surely difficult, the ‘Cats miraculously still have a path to a bowl game this season.

NCAA Football: Howard at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Following a 1-11 campaign last season and a hazing scandal that has made national headlines, no one expected much of anything from Northwestern football in 2023. However, to our collective surprise, the ‘Cats enter the bye at .500, after a string of victories against UTEP, Minnesota and Howard.

These early results leave Northwestern in contention for a bowl game, a conversation that seemed an afterthought only a couple of weeks ago. The most straightforward path for the Wildcats to make a bowl game is to win at least three games against their remaining competition — which is comprised of only Big Ten opponents — but even reaching the five-win watermark could open the door.

So, let’s take a look at each of Northwestern’s remaining matchups, and assess which ones give the ‘Cats the best path to bowl season.

Oct. 21 at Nebraska

Opponent Record: 3-3 (1-2 Conference)

The ‘Cats start off the second half of their season against the one team they beat last year, that being Nebraska. The Cornhuskers, led by former Baylor and Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, share the same record as the ‘Cats.

The Cornhuskers’ only home wins this season have come against non-Power Five schools, having defeated Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech in back-to-back weeks. They also took down Illinois on the road last week, snatching a 20-7 victory in Urbana-Champaign.

These developments make Nebraska a very beatable opponent for the ‘Cats. I would be much more confident in a victory if Northwestern were the home team, but since this game is being played in Lincoln, the result is very much up in the air. It obviously won’t be a cake walk, but if Ben Bryant and A.J. Henning return at full strength — both are expected to play after being sidelined against Howard — the ‘Cats certainly have a chance to win this game and defeat the Huskers for a second year in a row.

Oct. 28 vs. Maryland

Opponent Record: 5-1 (2-1 Conference)

Maryland lost its first game of the season this past weekend, falling to Ohio State. Indeed, at times it looked like the Terps were the better team, keeping the third-ranked team in the country at arm’s length.

Even with the loss, the Terrapins have been nothing short of excellent so far. Taulia Tagovailoa — whose last name should ring a bell for any NFL fans reading this — has been phenomenal, registering almost 1,700 yards in the air with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.

As for the ‘Cats, their final Big Ten East game of the season will not be easy. NU has enjoyed somewhat of a home field advantage all season long, but the Terps might simply be too much to overcome. While students have been advised to dress for the annual “blackout” game, it might also be worth preparing for a possible blowout.

Nov. 4 vs. Iowa (Wrigley Game)

Opponent Record: 5-1 (2-1 conference)

For the first time since 2021, the ‘Cats return to Wrigley Field, this time with Iowa as the opponent. The Hawkeyes just lost Cade McNamara for the season with a torn ACL, with backup Deacon Hill taking the reins.

A less favorable crowd than a normal home game combined with a fierce opponent makes this matchup another challenging one for the ‘Cats. While McNamara might be gone, this Iowa team is still solid, even though its offense ranks among the worst in the entire country. The ‘Cats would need an offensive spark to give them a chance, but such hasn’t come easy so far this year.

The Hawkeyes control their destiny in the Big Ten West, and will certainly see this game as a must-win before a possible make-or-break showdown against Wisconsin. Expect a low-scoring affair, but I’d give the obvious edge to Iowa here.

Nov. 11 at Wisconsin

Opponent Record: 4-1 (2-0 Conference)

I’ll keep this one brief. The ‘Cats have a very slim chance of beating the Badgers, especially in Madison. Expect Braelon Allen to rip apart this defense, which has been particularly poor against the run. Tanner Mordecai also has his off days, but he shouldn’t have much trouble here either.

Simply put, Wisconsin is a much better football team, and there’s little that Northwestern can do to counteract that — especially at Camp Randall Stadium. Opportunities for victories exist in this ‘Cats schedule, but this game likely won’t be one of them.

Nov. 18 vs. Purdue

Opponent Record: 2-4 (1-2 Conference)

In the final home game of the season, I actually expect the ‘Cats to pull off the win against Purdue (hopefully I’m not being too overconfident). The Boilermakers have had a litany of struggles this season, and appear very beatable.

Purdue’s only convincing win of the season came against Illinois, which isn’t an overwhelming feat by any means. The Boilermakers also beat Virginia Tech, but have fallen short against Fresno State, Syracuse and Big Ten foes Wisconsin and Iowa.

As for the ‘Cats, the opportunity is theirs for the taking. This offense should be able to step up against a fairly weak defense, and possibly deliver the home fans a hard-earned victory to savor into next season. Only time will tell, though.

Nov. 25 at Illinois

Opponent Record: 2-4 (0-3 Conference)

Alas, we’ve reached Northwestern’s showdown with the Fighting Illini. This should be the most winnable game of the bunch against a squad that looks aimless halfway through the season. Illinois’ offense has been utterly abysmal as of late, averaging less than 16 points per game over their last four matchups. Don’t expect this number to improve ahead of showdowns against Maryland and Wisconsin these next two weeks.

In regards to the ‘Cats, this should be a slam dunk. Nevertheless, nothing is a guarantee, and this game shouldn’t be taken lightly. The ‘Cats tend to struggle away from home, and might find some trouble in hostile territory. I worry that this team will play down to competition as it has done in the past, but hope that the resilience it has shown so far will guide NU to a victory here. I’d favor the ‘Cats in this one a month-and-a-half out, but there’s still plenty of time for this prediction to change.

Final Thoughts

If you asked me to predict today whether or not the ‘Cats will make a bowl game, I’d unfortunately answer in the negative. Regardless of these predictions, this schedule is not an easy one, and finding three games that I can confidently say the Wildcats can win isn’t as straightforward as one may think. If you had to ask me, I would say that winning against Nebraska, Purdue and Illinois is the likeliest scenario, but also one that isn’t probable. Favoring or having optimism for Northwestern in these games is one thing, but winning them all is another.

The reality is, indeed, that this won’t be easy. But against all the odds so far, Northwestern football has prevailed in so many more ways than we anticipated. Now, we wait and see whether the ‘Cats have it in them to do it again.