The Northwestern Wildcats, incredibly quietly, have been a consistent program in the Big Ten for the past decade. Pat Fitzgerald has earned himself “coach for life” status, and for good reason. The program was in a bit of a resurgence when he arrives–Northwestern played in bowls five times from 1995 to 2005, after no bowls from 1948 to 2005–but it was still pretty consistently considered a bottom Big Ten team.
Under Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern made a bowl five consecutive years (2008-12). After a two-year hiatus, the Wildcats are now playing in their third consecutive bowl. Two years ago, in the 2015 season, Northwestern finished 10-3 and with a national ranking for the first time this century. However, that season was marred with a blowout bowl loss against Tennessee.
Northwestern Deserved Better
If you line up the Big Ten standings, in terms of raw conference record, Northwestern actually finished tied for third. Wisconsin went 9-0, Ohio State went 8-1, then Northwestern, Penn State, and Michigan State all finished 7-2. Penn State, obviously, received a New Year’s Six invite, so in terms of bowl priority, Northwestern should have been tied for next choice with Michigan State.
While that is technically what happened–in reality, it clearly wasn’t.
The Big Ten no longer has a bowl selection order for most teams. Instead, the bowls submit a list of desired teams to the conference, and the conference–in consultation with the bowls–selects which team goes where. The ACC and SEC do something similar for their bigger bowls.
According to the Big Ten, the Outback, Holiday, Music City, Pinstripe, and Foster Farms Bowls are all the same caliber of selection. Going to any of those bowls is viewed the same way. Therefore, there is no inherent difference between Michigan State’s and Northwestern’s bowl selections.
However, that clearly is not true. You can tell, most notably, by the caliber of opponent. Michigan State is facing Washington State, the number four team from the Pac 12. Michigan–who finished with a 5-4 record in Big Ten play–faces South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks, by pure record, were the number five team in the SEC, and finished ahead of Kentucky in the SEC East. Additionally, the Outback Bowl pays out significantly more than the Music City Bowl. While that is technically irrelevant, as Big Ten teams share payouts, it says something about the bowl’s value.
The Big Ten absolutely sent Northwestern to a lower bowl than it deserved, and Wildcats fans should be upset. Of course, the Big Ten will say the reason is that Northwestern played in the Outback Bowl two years ago. It’s a valid excuse, but they still could have sent Northwestern to the Holiday Bowl.
Why It Might Be Okay
Northwestern looked as good two years ago as it does now. That season ended in disaster, though, with a lopsided loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. The conference certainly remembers that, which was likely a consideration in the Music City Bowl selection this year.
Of course, last year Northwestern upset a good Pitt team in the Pinstripe Bowl. While Northwestern has not historically succeeded in bowls, the Wildcats came away with a good win last year. Nevertheless, that was not enough to earn national respect coming in to this season, nor even really during this season. Northwestern is currently ranked among the tail end of three-loss Power 5 teams, behind a Michigan State team that the Wildcats beat.
Part of Northwestern’s lack of respect–which impacted the Music City Bowl selection–is its historic lack of sustained success. Fitzgerald has kept Northwestern winning games and seasons–a tremendous step forward for this program–but the Wildcats cannot seem to stay nationally relevant. Part of that, almost certainly, is the lack of success in bowls.
The last time Northwestern finished with a bowl win and nationally-ranked? That would be the 1948 season, when Northwestern won the Rose Bowl and finished in the Top 10. Northwestern certainly deserved a better bowl opponent than Kentucky. Northwestern absolutely deserved better than the Music City Bowl. But a bowl win over an SEC team–something the program lacks–will do wonders heading into 2018 and beyond. As will a second ten-win season in three years. Northwestern probably can play with a better opponent. But these purple Wildcats are favored by over a touchdown against their blue counterparts–and a respectable bowl win to cap off a ranked season is exactly what Northwestern needs right now.