Going into this season, most Northwestern football fans, and even some members of the traditional media (who are typically "down" on the Wildcats), expected NU to win enough games to earn a second consecutive bowl berth, which is something NU has only done once in school history (1995-96). Instead, NU's season is on life support with a 4-3 record heading into a tough final stretch of Big Ten games.
Yes, the 'Cats have a winning record after seven games, something that would make NU fans very happy most seasons. But considering the strength-of-schedule (or lack thereof) through the first half of NU's 2009 season, the Wildcats definitely under-achieved, and have put themselves squarely on the bowl bubble.
This week's matchup against Indiana (also 4-3) at Ryan Field is critical for Northwestern's dwindling 2009 bowl hopes, with both squads eager to get within one victory of bowl eligibility. After this week, both teams have just one "win-able" game left on their respective schedules (Purdue for Indiana, and Illinois for Northwestern), so this game could very well end up being a "play-in" game for bowl eligibility.
As everyone saw with Purdue defeating Ohio State this past week, anything can happen in Big Ten conference play, but the Wildcats will be facing two teams still in the heat of the conference race (Penn State and Iowa) and another that is playing solid football and has exceeded expectations for this season (Wisconsin). The battle against the Hoosiers this week is a must-win.
Although NU opened as a five point favorite versus Indiana this week, and despite the fact that NU has been in every game this year (leading at the half last week and in the fourth in their previous two losses), the Wildcats can't look past anyone, something they should have learned in last year's loss to Indiana. NU still must put together a "complete game" this weekend to come up victorious and get one step closer to a bowl.
Looking ahead, if NU were to do as expected by beating Indiana and Illinois, while losing to their other three opponents, they would stand at 6-6, putting them at the bottom rung of the bowl selection ladder. With seven Big Ten teams heading towards winning records, this would leave NU in limbo, much like in 2007 when the 'Cats ended at 6-6 and were left at home for the holidays (the Big Ten had ten bowl eligible teams that year, and .500 NU and Iowa were left out of the picture when bids were handed out).
The 'Cats will need some help to get in (again, if they take care of business), most likely in the form of the Big Ten getting two teams into the BCS. That didn't look likely at the beginning of the year, but with Iowa's strong performance, the conference could put them along with the winner of the Nov. 7 PSU/OSU game into the BCS.
A lot depends on what happens in other conferences to get that extra BCS bid, with only three at-large spots available (assuming one of the four is taken by a "mid major" team, which is very likely with Boise State sitting at fourth in the opening BCS rankings). The ACC teams have been knocking each other off, but Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Miami (FL) are done playing each other, and are all in the Top 14 of the initial BCS rankings. The SEC is almost guaranteed a second berth. Thankfully, the Big XII seems to be faltering with some promising teams from the North Division losing this last week (Nebraska and Kansas), while usual BCS entrant Oklahoma is sitting at 3-3. The Big East has done fairly well, but it doesn't look like they'll be able to provide two teams for the top tier of bowl games.
That leaves the Big Ten to duke it out with the Pac-10 for the final spot, and we'll have to see what happens in conference play down the stretch for Oregon and USC; if those two teams along with the Big Ten's top three avoid upsets down the stretch, it could be an interesting battle.
If the Big Ten can't get two teams into the BCS, that leaves NU hoping for an at-large bid for a bowl that can't fill one of its slots due to one of its conference affiliates not providing enough eligible teams. It's entirely possible, with just four bowl eligible teams failing to receive a bid last year (6-6 Bowling Green, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State, and San Jose State), but not a very likely situation.
The best way for Northwestern to guarantee itself a bowl berth is to win seven games, meaning that NU needs to win the games it should (Indiana and Illinois) while putting together its best game of the year to defeat one of the conference's top teams down the stretch. It all starts this week against Indiana in a do-or-die game for a shot at the post season in 2009.
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