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Exploring the realistic bowl game possibilities for Northwestern football

Where could the Wildcats be headed for their postseason contest? Let’s dive in.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 11 Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With only two weeks left in the college football regular-season schedule, eyes are starting to shift to end-of-year conference championship games, the College Football Playoff committee’s rankings (as controversial/nebulous as they may be) and, of course, bowl season. Whether you’re a sicko like me and partake in ESPN Fantasy’s Bowl Mania every year or simply want to watch two high-level programs square off in a fun playoff contest, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

After missing out on partaking in a bowl contest each of the last two years, Northwestern is virtually a lock to make one in 2023. For one, the Wildcats already have five wins and need to beat either 3-7 Purdue or 5-5 Illinois to solidify the crucial sixth win — which would promise eligibility. For context, ESPN FPI gives the Wildcats a 71.6% chance to get to six-plus victories. Even in the instance that does not occur, NU led the nation in Academic Progress Rate last year, so the Wildcats would get top priority among any 5-7 teams.

Altogether, there are 41 bowl games, including the two CFP semifinal matchups; that leaves 82 teams to participate in such matchups. So far, 58 of those slots have been claimed, including by six Big Ten squads (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Rutgers and Maryland). That means that 24 more programs can solidify their spots in the final two games. In terms of the Big Ten, it’s a guarantee that either Northwestern or Illinois will earn a berth with both teams having five wins, and the two squaring off next week. Plus, 5-5 Wisconsin takes on 5-5 Nebraska this Saturday and then 5-5 Minnesota, so at least one of those three teams will garner contention (and probably two if the Gophers win at home).

Despite the quirkiness of each unique bowl game and its glorious traditions, it’s impossible for the ‘Cats to qualify for each because of specific conference affiliations. Also, NU will not be making the CFP or a New Year’s Six bowl even if it wins out, so that eliminates some more storied stages. Nonetheless, there are still several realistic bowl games for the Wildcats, whose outcomes range from 5-7 to 7-5. Get acquainted with their details and their likelihoods below.

Note: Records listed were prior to bowl games being played.

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl

Date: Saturday, Dec. 23

Time: 6:30 p.m. CT/4:30 p.m. PT

Location: Allegiant Stadium (Las Vegas, Nevada)

Opposing Conference: PAC-12

2022 Result: Oregon State (9-3) def. Florida (6-6)

The earliest possibility on the bowl game slate comes all the way out west in Sin City. What better way to send off the PAC-12 as we know it by having Northwestern battle a Western foe in its last dance?

However, this game may not be super likely for the Wildcats. In the last four iterations of the Las Vegas Bowl, seven of the eight competitors had at least seven wins, although the 6-6 Gators snuck in last season.

Based on an alternating rotation, the last Big Ten squad to compete in Vegas was 8-4 Wisconsin, which beat Arizona State in 2021. The Badgers finished second in the Big Ten West that season; the ‘Cats could do the same in 2023, but it still may not be sufficient.

Current projections for Big Ten teams in this game are Maryland (Action Network), Iowa (The Athletic), Illinois (CBS Sports) and Nebraska (247 Sports), so Northwestern can’t be ruled out.

Quick Lane Bowl

Date: Tuesday, Dec. 26

Time: 1 p.m. CT/2 p.m. ET

Location: Ford Field (Detroit, Michigan)

Opposing Conference: MAC

2022 Result: New Mexico State (6-6) def. Bowling Green State (6-6) 24-19

For some reason, this one just feels the most on-brand for Northwestern. For one, the Wildcats’ primarily midwestern-based fanbase could more easily get to Detroit; also, Ben Bryant played at Eastern Michigan in 2021, so there’s a MAC connection, too.

The ‘Cats getting to six wins is the most realistic outcome, and that would put them in the prime range for the requisite record to play here based on 2022. The previous six competitors from 2018-21 in the Quick Lane Bowl never exceeded eight wins; more specifically, three went 7-5, while two went 6-6. One of those .500 teams was Minnesota in 2018.

CBS Sports projects Northwestern to take on a 4-6 Northern Illinois from the Motor City — which would mean another Rocky Lombardi vs. Wildcats matchup — while the other three aforementioned outlets have three other .500 Big Ten West squads.

Guaranteed Rate Bowl

Date: Tuesday, Dec. 26

Time: 8 p.m. CT/6 p.m. PT

Location: Chase Field (Phoenix, Arizona)

Opposing Conference: Big 12

2022 Result: Wisconsin (6-6) def. Oklahoma State (7-5) 24-17

The Wildcats have already played in one baseball stadium this year, so why not make it two? That could become a reality if Northwestern is selected to play in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl (not to be confused with nearby Guaranteed Rate Field).

Last year’s matchup pitted the middling Badgers against the marginally better Cowboys, and the 2021 and 2019 versions witnessed 6-6 teams get invites. As long as Northwestern wins one more game, this one feels like it could be in the cards.

Action Network’s Brett McMurphy prognosticates the ‘Cats to take on Kansas from Phoenix — the projected line of Jayhawks -11.5 reflects what would be a very formidable opponent. Two sites have the Terrapins flying out to Arizona.

Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl

Date: Thursday, Dec. 28

Time: 1:15 p.m. CT/2:15 p.m. ET

Location: Yankee Stadium (Bronx, New York)

Opposing Conference: ACC

2022 Result: Minnesota (8-4) def. Syracuse (7-5) 28-20

Fans of the purple and white sure know this venue and atmosphere well, with NU having defeated Pitt in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl. A repeat seven years later could very well occur.

Both of last year’s competitors had at least seven wins, but the threshold for taking swings in the Bronx was lower than the two instances prior: both Maryland and Michigan State went 6-6 in 2021 and 2019, respectively.

It’s important to consider that the selection committee may favor a team from the East Coast (e.g., Rutgers or Maryland) that would have more fans flock to 161st Street, and that nine different Big Ten squads have played in this game in the last nine years, so repeating recent programs might not be on the docket. Maybe unsurprisingly, all of the four outlets think the Scarlet Knights will get this slot.

TransPerfect Music City Bowl

Date: Saturday, Dec. 30

Time: 1 p.m. CT

Location: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tennessee)

Opposing Conference: SEC

2022 Result: No. 21 Iowa (7-5) def. Kentucky (7-5) 21-0

Another name that will evoke positive memories for ‘Cats fans: Northwestern edged out Kentucky 24-23 six years ago from Nashville. At that point, the Wildcats were No. 24, but that ranking (presumably) won’t be applicable this time around.

In the last two years, every team partaking in the Music City Bowl had already won a minimum of seven games, which would require the Wildcats to beat the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini. However, the two games prior saw 6-6 Mississippi State and 6-6 Purdue battle from Nissan Stadium. Overall, because this was NU’s third-most recent bowl appearance, I would be skeptical of the program making another trip down south.

247Sports’ Brad Crawford posited Northwestern dueling Tennessee in this game, which would be tough in terms of crowd distribution proportions. Other projections for the Big Ten representative are Wisconsin and Minnesota.

ReliaQuest Bowl

Date: Monday, Jan. 1

Time: 11 a.m. CT/12 p.m. ET

Location: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Florida)

Opposing Conference: SEC

2022 Result: No. 24 Mississippi State (8-4) def. Illinois (8-4) 19-10

Fundamentally, this game is unlikely for a few reasons.

To start, the Big Ten does not have a guaranteed spot down in Tampa. If a team from its conference is selected to play in the Orange Bowl, then the ACC would take over. Assuming that Michigan and Ohio State don’t both make the CFP, one of UM, OSU or Penn State could easily play down in Miami. In fact, all four sites think that the Buckeyes will do so. In that case, this would be moot for the Wildcats.

If not, though, this game is definitely of a higher tier of competition. The last five ReliaQuest Bowls have featured ranked opponents, including programs that posted their best seasons in recent memory like Illinois and Indiana. Excluding the COVID 2020 season, only one team has qualified for this bowl game having under eight wins since 2019.

Sure, there’s a hyper-slim chance that Northwestern could make this game, but don’t pack your bags for South Florida for several compounding reasons.