Outback Bowl seems inevitable for Northwestern football

NU Ryan Field
Fans cheer at Ryan Field during a Northwestern football game.

By Jordan Ray

After his team beat Illinois last weekend, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made it clear he wasn’t happy with how the College Football Playoff committee has been ranking his team.

“I saw a team (Stanford) ranked X amount of spots ahead of us that we beat,” Fitzgerald told reporters. “I don’t get it. Pop on the tape, and watch the film. Our kids dominated that game, and I don’t think they get any credit.”

Maybe he’ll feel better about Tampa.

All signs indicate the No. 14 Wildcats won’t get picked for a New Year’s Six bowl game despite their win against the No. 7 Cardinal, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats won’t get to ring in 2016 with a game, specifically the Outback Bowl.

Pat Fitzgerald NU Coach
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is pictured. (Big Ten)

“I would be surprised if they ended up somewhere else,” said Jerry Palm, a college football bowls expert for CBSSports.com.

No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State play in the Big Ten Championship this weekend with the winner likely making the College Football Playoff.

The loser will likely fall behind No. 6 Ohio State in the rankings, giving the Buckeyes a spot in the Rose Bowl, but still get a bid from the Fiesta Bowl as an at-large team.

That leaves Northwestern, No. 15 Michigan and Wisconsin as the three teams available for the Big Ten’s top tier of non-New Year’s Six bowls: the Citrus Bowl, the Outback Bowl and the Holiday Bowl.

The Citrus Bowl gets to pick first and indicated on Twitter that the discussion would center around Northwestern and Michigan if the top three Big Ten teams are all unavailable.

Palm said it’ll pick Michigan if given the choice between the two.

“The bowls want fans to show up in the seats,” Palm said. “They want people to watch on TV. There are very few stories in college football more compelling than Jim Harbaugh, and Michigan is a brand name that would attract casual viewers even without (him).”

In a 2013 study, TicketCity named Michigan the most engaged fanbase in college football.

Wisconsin travels better and has a bigger fanbase than Northwestern, but the Badgers already played in the Outback Bowl last season. Palm has them slated to play in the Holiday Bowl instead.

Outback Bowl communications director Mike Schulze said Northwestern is attractive for a number of reasons, namely Fitzgerald.

“Coach Fitzgerald is one of the best coaches in the country, has done an awesome job there and is great to work with,” Schulze said.

A win would give Northwestern its first 11-win team in school history.

When Northwestern last went to a bowl game, the 2013 Gator Bowl, it beat Mississippi State 34-20. In the Outback Bowl, the Wildcats would get to play someone from the SEC again, but projecting which team is difficult.

“It’s almost like pulling names out of a hat,” Palm said.

Palm currently projects No. 25 Tennessee, but said No. 18 Florida, No. 21 LSU, Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, which each have 8 or 9 wins, are all possibilities.

Regardless of whom they’d play, there is almost zero chance Northwestern gets a better bowl than the Outback. Even if Michigan State beats Iowa 170-0, it would likely drop the Hawkeyes out of the New Year’s Six and into the Citrus Bowl, forcing Northwestern down another spot in the pecking order to the Music City Bowl.

How does Tampa sound?

Photo at top: Fans cheer at Ryan Field during a Northwestern football game. (Flickr via Frank Gruber)