Zeroing in on Wildcats’ Warm Weather Destination – Sorting Through the Bowl Scenarios

UPDATED 11/20, 3:16 PM CT to include the possibility of Michigan moving up to the BCS and its impact on Northwestern’s Capital One Bowl hopes. 

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several days digging through the Big Ten’s bowl rules and talking to bowl and conference officials, as well as some college football experts.  Let’s just say this stuff is not nearly as simple as it might appear on the surface.  There are still some questions left to be answered, which we are working on.  And while we wait on all of our “Bowl Watchers” to get their projections posted this week, I’m going to do my own guestimation of where and how the ‘Cats will end up, based on what I have come to understand is the most accurate information at this point.

First, quick recap of the Big Ten’s Bowl selection order for 2012, with our regular reminder that the order is the order of selection by the bowls, not order of finish in the conference standings.

  • Big Ten Champion – Rose Bowl vs. Pac-12 Champion – January 1, Pasadena, CA
  • Big Ten #2 – Capital One Bowl vs. SEC #2 – January 1, Orlando FL
  • Big Ten #3 – Outback Bowl vs. SEC – January 1, Tampa, FL
  • Big Ten #4 – Gator Bowl vs. SEC #6 – January 1, Jacksonville, FL
  • Big Ten #5 – Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. Big 12 #4 – December 29, Tempe, AZ
  • Big Ten #6 – Meineke Car Care Bowl vs. Big 12 #6 – December 28, Houston, TX
  • Big Ten #7 – Heart of Dallas Bowl vs. Conference USA – January 1, Dallas, TX
  • Big Ten #8 – Little Caesars Bowl vs. MAC – December 26, Detroit, MI

Now, as we enter the final weekend of the regular season, let’s take a look at the aggregate records of bowl eligible and possibly bowl eligible teams in the Big Ten and their remaining opponents.  Note that we are ranking based on overall records, not Big Ten records, as Big Ten bowl rules, where they apply, are based on records in “all games,” except for obviously the winner of the Big Ten Championship Game, who will book tickets to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

  • Nebraska, 9-2; Friday @ Iowa, possible 12/1 Big Ten Championship Game* vs. Wisconsin
  • Northwestern, 8-3; Saturday vs. Illinois
  • Michigan, 8-3; Saturday @ Ohio State, possible 12/1 Big Ten Championship Game* vs. Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin, 7-4; Saturday @ Penn State, 12/1 Big Ten Championship Game vs. Nebraska/Michigan
  • Minnesota, 6-5; Saturday vs. Michigan State
  • Michigan State, 5-6; Saturday @ Minnesota (needs a win for bowl eligibility)
  • Purdue, 5-6; Saturday vs. Indiana (needs a win for bowl eligibility)

*Nebraska, by virtue of their 23-9 win over Michigan on October 27, holds the tiebreaker in the Leaders division, so if both teams win or both teams lose, Nebraska would be heading to Indianapolis on December 1.

Also, a reminder of the Big Ten’s bowl rules… After the Rose Bowl, the next two bowls in the selection order, the Capital One and Outback Bowls, respectively, are bound by the following:


1. May select any eligible team after Rose Bowl Game/BCS except a team that has two fewer wins or two more losses (in all games) than another eligible team.
2. Moving a 2nd Big Ten team up into the BCS does not affect these selection rules.


1. May select any eligible team after Capital One Bowl except a team that has two fewer wins or two more losses (in all games) than another eligible team.
2. Should a 2nd Big Ten team move up into the BCS, then the two-win/loss differential requirement is no longer applicable.

Note the “or” and the “in all games.”  So it’s an either/or scenario on the two fewer wins/two more losses exception and it includes “all games,” meaning there is no distinguishing between conference and non-conference games and a loss in the Big Ten Championship Game is in play.
After those top three bowls have made their picks, it’s open season, and bowls may select whichever team they prefer.  As noted above, if the Big Ten places a second team into the BCS, then the Outback Bowl is not bound by this rule and would also be entitled to select whichever team they prefer.  (A lot of dominos would need to fall for the Big Ten to get a second team into the BCS, starting with Michigan defeating Ohio State and Nebraska defeating Iowa, so we are not going to address that possibility now.  If the dominos do fall, then we can address that circumstance in a future post.)
Knowing all of this, here are my most likely possible scenarios for Northwestern, in order of likelihood…
Scenario 1 – Northwestern to Outback Bowl
Simply, if Northwestern beats Illinois, they would finish at 9-3 and have no worse than the second best record in all games among the teams from the Big Ten.  The critical tipping point for Northwestern, to keep from dropping below the Outback Bowl, is to have two fewer losses or two more wins, than Wisconsin, which would put Northwestern no worse than the third selection spot after Nebraska and Michigan.  If Wisconsin were to lose either to Penn State or in the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin would finish 8-5.  Northwestern would have two fewer losses than Wisconsin, and the Outback Bowl, by rule would not be allowed to select Wisconsin over Northwestern and the ‘Cats would be headed to Tampa.
Scenario 2 – Northwestern to Capital One Bowl
It is possible that Northwestern could go as high as the Capital One Bowl.  For that to happen, Northwestern would need to beat Illinois, Nebraska would need to beat Iowa and then Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and Michigan would probably need to lose big to Ohio State.  That would leave Northwestern at 9-3 and Michigan at 8-4.  Granted, the two-loss rule would not be in effect here to automatically force Northwestern ahead of Michigan, but from what I’m hearing, there are some folks at the Cap One Bowl who are big Northwestern fans.
Another possible route to the Cap One for the ‘Cats… If Michigan somehow moves up into the BCS, which would mean a win over Ohio State, coupled with Nebraska wins over Iowa and then Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game, and several schools ahead of Ohio State in the BCS standings losing (again, a lot of dominos, so we’re not going to dig too deeply into this at this point), and Northwestern beats Illinois, that could also push NU toward Orlando.
Scenario 3 – Northwestern to Gator Bowl
Again, this scenario assumes Northwestern beats Illinois to go to 9-3.  If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Championship Game to take the Rose Bowl spot, that would free up Nebraska and Michigan for the Outback and Capital One Bowls.  If it’s Michigan who advances to the Big Ten Championship Game (by virtue of a Michigan win over Ohio State and a Nebraska loss to Iowa) and loses to Wisconsin, I think the Capital One Bowl would take Michigan and Nebraska would go to the Outback, leaving Northwestern to go to Jacksonville.  Despite what’s been said and written about the Gator Bowl, I’d have a hard time seeing them chose a 7-5/6-6 Minnesota, 6-6 Michigan State, or 6-6 Purdue over a 9-3 Northwestern.  Yes, they are free to select whomever they want, but there would be quite the uproar if they reached down for any of those three schools over Northwestern.
Scenario 4 – Northwestern to Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Now, a Northwestern loss to Illinois and the 8-4 record that would result, and all bets are off.  However, I don’t think Northwestern would drop below the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, because I’m told the folks in Tempe really like the Cats.


  • Smolmania

    Hard to imagine myself rooting for a loss, but I really would prefer AZ to FL.

  • cece

    N.Y. Day, Florida. Go ‘Cats!!!

    • PBRCat

      Florida, yes, but Jacksonville, no! There are two better Florida bowl sites in my opinion.

      • cece

        agreed! but, dear bowl reps, know that NU will bring it to FLA. we’ve done it before, we’ll do it again. by plane and by car and by FLA alums.

  • MB1982

    Garry Smits of the Florida Times-Union, who started that whole “Gator Bowl will never take Northwestern” stuff, now says Northwestern is the likely Big Ten candidate:

    But it seems more likely to me that Wisconsin will lose at least once if not twice, which could put us in the Outback.

    • CatInTheHat

      That article is terribly written. Strange tone to this journalsim coming out of Jax (and I wasn’t even a Medill guy). Anyway, I think we match up best with Mississippi State. Two 9-3 teams with very similar resumes going at it on New Year’s Day in FL, giving NU a chance to knock off a quality SEC foe to end The Drought? Sounds great to me!

      • nuuva

        what about this is terrible? seems pretty clear to me

  • JM

    With an undefeated season on the line, OSU is likely to crush a vulnerable Michigan team. If we take care of business, Capital One looks likely. Which would be awesome, however dicey the matchup looks on paper for us.

  • Chasmo

    What’s frightening about the possibility of NU getting such a good bowl bid due to the fact that the Big Ten is experiencing a down year and has two of its best team ineligible is the prospect of NU being outclassed by an SEC team and having its bowl futility continue.
    NU has not beaten a ranked team this year and it might not even be able to boast of having a victory over a winning team when all is said and done.
    The idea of NU having to face the No. 2 or No. 3 team in the SEC in a bowl brings to mind the image an embarrassing blowout loss that damages the program. That’s why it’s easy to root for NU to be passed over and have to go to the Gator Bowl or the Tempe Bowl where it will face more equal competition and have a chance to shed the monkey on its back.

    • Fanaticat

      Yes, the possibility that we could still go to the 2nd best bowl, when in reality we are probably the 5th best team, is concern for a mismatch. However, the bowl order doesn’t always mean consistently decreasing difficulty as you go down the bowl seeds. The B12 #4 in BWW could very well be better, or a worse matchup, than the SEC #6 in the Gator, or even the next SEC pick up in the Outback.
      We’ve tried for success at all levels of bowls and haven’t succeeded (Motor CIty Bowl, Sun Bowl, Ticket CIty Bowl, Meinecke Bowl…) The reasons for this are many, but I would just as well take the a good bowl against a good SEC team to show the CFB world we can win a big game.

  • Super Fu-eds

    what about Michigan to BCS? (Unlikely – but not crazy if they beat tOSU, Nebraska goes Rose and several other dominoes fall) – wouldn’t this also be a guaranteed Capital One Bowl presuming NU finishes 9-3?

    • Brett Kurland

      Funny – I actually just added that scenario to this post, just before I saw your comment. You are correct.

  • Scott Feeney, Class of 87

    As for possible match ups, I am not sure I feel good about possibly playing Texas AM in the Gator Bowl. I think we might be able to hang with South Carolina. There offense in questionable. I am certainly not thrilled with taking on the #2 SEC team in the Capitol One Bowl. I am also not sure we match up well in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Texas Tech or Oklahoma State. Who from the SEC would we be matched up against in the Outback Bowl?

    • Scott Feeney, Class of 87

      Meant to say “their” offense for all the spell checkers out there.

    • BostonWildcat

      No chance we would play a&m in the gator. Gator will be the 7th sec pick (since sec will get 2 bcs teams) and will almost certainly be miss state. Only other contender would be vandy but they wouldn’t replay that if nu goes gator.
      For outback bowl, it’s likely an sec east team which means Georgia/Florida/S Carolina. All still have a top 10 team to play (Bama/fsu/Clemson) so lots to play out there. Best guess would be s Carolina I think but not at all certain.

  • Alaskawildcat

    OK, so what is the question or questions that are still waiting to be answered? Sure looks pretty black and white as to the rules interpretations as presented. Who would have thought the Cap One and Outback would be more likely than the Gator just one week ago?

    • Brett Kurland

      There is some disagreement over whether Wisconsin only being potentially one win behind Northwestern makes a difference. I don’t think it does.

  • Henry in CT

    My grand scenario is for Mark running and Colter as a receiver and Siemian at QB to lead us to a victory over A&M, LSU,Georgia or the like and finally for NU to again be on the CFB map. The opportunity will be there this year.

    • DT

      Henry, my goodness, if I did not know you better, I’d say you were hitting the Koolaid with visions of victory over Johnny Football and lord knows, Georgia and LSU in Dixie no less… BTW– Exactly how long has NU been off this “map” you reference?

      • Henry in CT

        DT- When is the last time we beat a non-B1G legit top 10 team? We may have never been on the map but winning a major bowl could do it. I actually believe that with Siemian at QB, Colter as a spot QB and receiver the rest of the time and with Mark 100 percent and a good game plan and game management and with a little luck we would stand a chance against one of the better SEC, Big XII or Pac 12 teams or Florida St or Clemson. We’ll let them score 30 and we’ll score 35. That will be the way.

  • John

    The Capital One, Outback, and Gator are all in Florida, all at 1:00 EST on New Year’s Day, and all against SEC opponents. Given those similarities, I think I’d prefer the weakest opponent in the Gator Bowl, probably Miss. State.
    How sure are we that the Big Ten Championship game counts in the 2-win, 2-loss rule? Interesting that we could be a “lock” for the Outback if Wisconsin loses just one more game and we beat Illinois. The sportswriters don’t seem to be aware of this.

    • CM

      Agreed on the 2-loss rule. DOES IT APPLY TO A LOSS IN THE CONFERENCE TITLE GAME?? Different outlets have reported different things…

      • ctya

        Pretty sure this article addresses this: “a loss in the Big Ten Championship Game is in play.”

        • Brett Kurland

          You are correct. And I just confirmed it with the Big Ten. The Cap One Bowl and Outback Bowl could not select an 8-5 team over a 9-3 team.

        • CM

          The reason I ask is because Rittenberg/Bennett from ESPN said the opposite. They were adamant that 8-5 with CCG loss does not fit the 2 loss rule against a 9-3 NU

          • Brett Kurland

            I asked that exact question of the Big Ten, and was told a loss in the title game would count, and was told that is why it says “in all games” in the conference’s bowl rules.

          • CM

            My source at NU just told me the same thing. Thanks for the help! Not sure how the ESPN Big Ten bloggers got it wrong…

  • CMF

    First off, assuming we beat Illinois, I am very happy we will be in any of the Jan 1 bowls. Regardless of our opponent, being in a bowl on Jan 1 will be great exposure to the program. I realize I might be in the minority, but I am hoping for Outback Bowl or better. At this point, all of our opponents are going to be (heavily) favored over us no matter what bowl we end up in. I am well aware of the bowl streak, but if we are ever going to break this streak, let’s do it in style with a big upset over a big program (think Boise St. over Oklahoma in 2007 Fiesta Bowl). I don’t want to break this streak in Detroit playing a MAC team or Big 12 #7 in the Heart of Dallas. Like many of you, I am scared as hell that we will be over-matched and dominated, but we have to embrace this opportunity. This is a chance to remember 2012 as a special year where we exceeded expectations by winning 10 games and broke the bowl streak with an incredible upset in a New Year’s Day bowl – not for the excruciating 4th quarter collapses in a shoulda/woulda/coulda year. I bet Jared Carpenter, Quentin Williams, Demetrius Fields, David Nwabuisi, Patrick Ward, and all the other seniors want to play in the best bowl against the best team possible, even if this is their last chance to break the bowl streak while at NU. With that said, let’s focus on Saturday and kick Illinois’ butt! Let’s cover that 19 point spread and not back-in to a fantastic bowl, but let’s go in with a full head of steam.

    • Wildcats99

      Amen to that. I second this comment. Bring on the big guns!

    • BeNWildcat14

      Love it! This is exactly what the program needs. Yes, extremely frustrating and heartbreaking losses this year. Games that we SHOULD have won. But to cap it off with the Land of Lincoln trophy and then a big New Years Day bowl win over maybe an SEC team (shutting up those annoying SEC-pride fanatics)….that is the way to go out strong and into the offseason.
      Than maybe next season we can smell some roses?

  • First off, thank you Brett. This is a thankless research project and just exposes the lunacy that is the caveat-riddled bowl pecking rules which, as an NU fan, seem designed to punish us. However, remember Jim Phillips. The guy spends all year building relationships toting TV ratings histories, past bowl ticket sales, average Household Incomes of fan base etc…and has actually helped NU JUMP much bigger programs.

    I’m with many of you…it is all about match-ups. We don’t want a gun-slinging accurate QB from SEC country with a solid run game (ex – Georgia). I also fear a potential worst case scenario of facing Florida in Florida, which would seem downright unfair (Delany has been highlighting this for years…B1G plays “road games” veiled as neutral site bowl games. I think if you weigh our strengths against potential opponents, South Carolina is the team I’d like to face. Sure, they scare me with their D, but without Marcus Lattimore, and a not so mobile QB, I think we match-up well. I haven’t seen enough of Mississippi State to know. I do know that beating an SEC team – our second SEC victory of the year, will be a huge storyline for the program. Also, assuming we beat Illinois on Saturday, it would be Fitz’s 50th win, giving him the alltime wins record for NU coaches at the same time as sticking a fork in one of our last ignominious stats.

  • PFoS

    Great job, Brett!