Nebraska is in the Capital One Bowl this season, squaring off against fellow conference runner-up Georgia. Northwestern, meanwhile, fell to the Gator Bowl behind Michigan, who was tabbed by the Outback. Things almost weren't that way, though; luckily, the Big Ten stepped in.
Let's back up a bit.
On its face, it makes sense that the Capital One Bowl—the first non-BCS bowl tie-in for both the Big Ten and the SEC—would take a conference runner-up. After all, a team that loses the conference title game would pretty much have to be the second-best team in the conference and therefore a natural fit for the bowl.
It's not always that simple, though. Losers of conference championship games are necessarily coming off losses, and that means a hit in the rankings (and, of course, the loss column) that the next-best team in the conference isn't taking.
Look at the SEC, after all; Georgia came into the championship game ranked one spot ahead of Florida in the BCS rankings. Alabama squeaks by Georgia, Florida stays at one loss and the at-large BCS slot goes to the Gators.
You know Georgia's looking at Florida and its Sugar Bowl bid and thinking, "Hey, since when were they better than us?"
That was in danger of happening to the Huskers too. After Wisconsin put a throttling for the ages on the hapless Nebraska defense, well-connected Big Ten writers began hearing things that sounded awfully good for Northwestern:
My best bowl source puts it at 75% that the Cap One will select #Northwestern over Nebraska.— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) December 2, 2012
Would be very surprised if Capital One Bowl doesn't select Northwestern to face TAMU. Nebraska in play, but would take a lot after big loss.— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) December 2, 2012
The Big Ten caught wind of this and apparently joined forces with the SEC to remind the Capital One Bowl just who the second-best teams in the conference actually were:
Hearing the Big Ten, SEC leadership didn't want Nebraska and Georgia to fall too far after league title game losses.— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) December 2, 2012
Northwestern fans are fair to call foul on this; their conference just spiked its best bowl invitation since the Citrus Bowl season of 1996, for crying out loud.
The result is a much more winnable bowl game, but only because Michigan—who wasn't even eligible for the Capital One Bowl thanks to Nebraska's two-game lead in the standings—then jumped over Northwestern to take the Outback bid. Northwestern essentially went from second to fourth in the pecking order, and that's pretty rough.
But at the end of the day, going into the Big Ten Championship, Nebraska was one game ahead of Northwestern in overall record, two games ahead in the conference standings and owner of the victory when the two teams met on the field. By no conceivable metric was Northwestern ahead of Nebraska in any pecking order at that point.
Put a 70-spot on Nebraska's defense in Indianapolis and all that changes, though. And that's understandable. But that demolition still happened in the conference championship—which is to say, in a game that Nebraska earned the right to play in and Northwestern didn't. So, to punish Nebraska for that (or to reward Northwestern, to put it another way) seems outside the boundaries of fairness.
Luckily, the Big Ten stepped in where necessary, so we're not talking about a travesty in the past tense.