Can Northwestern still reach one of college football's most illustrious bowl games?
Pat Fitzgerald doesn't see why not.
After a 5-0 start, back-to-back losses to Michigan and Iowa seemed to snuff out any chances of a storybook season for the Cats. It's hard to make the Big Ten title game with a pair of conference losses. It's almost impossible to make the College Football Playoff with more than one loss.
A Big Ten West Division championship hasn't been mathematically ruled out quite yet, but it would be if Iowa wins next week. The Cats would need the currently undefeated Hawkeyes to lose two of their last three games — all of which come against teams with losing records — to force a potential three-way tie atop the West Division and sneak into the Big Ten title game on a tiebreaker.
But that's very, very unlikely.
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So what's the best Northwestern can do if it finishes with two losses — that would require three victories over Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois to end the regular season — and doesn't even compete in the conference title game?
One of the four New Year's Six bowls that isn't a College Football Playoff semifinal is a possibility, and that's based on the fact that the playoff selection committee likes the Cats a lot. Northwestern was ranked No. 21 in this season's inaugural playoff rankings, and that ranking will likely improve this week with a good deal of ranked teams losing and Northwestern beating formerly 7-2 Penn State. The Cats have one of the toughest schedules in the country and claim a win over top-10 Stanford.
But a lot of stuff would have to happen for the Cats to get a spot in one of those prestigious bowl games. A lot of undefeated and one-loss teams across the country would have to become two-loss teams to even compare. But the truth is that Northwestern might not end up one of the four highest-ranked teams in its own conference. Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan are all ranked higher and should they keep winning will remain ranked higher. Including the playoff, there could be room for maybe three Big Ten teams in the New Year's Six bowls. There will not be room for five.
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But Fitzgerald isn't letting odds dictate his team's aspirations.
The head coach spoke Saturday following the win over Penn State about the possibility of reaching a big-time bowl game and that he's preaching to his players that they should have their eyes on that prize.
“We come into the College Football Playoff (rankings) at 21. We’re in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl," Fitzgerald said. "You’ve got to take it one at a time, but what a great testament to what we’ve been through. I think going into (Saturday’s) game we had like the eighth-toughest schedule in the country and the toughest in the Big Ten. Beat a seven-win team today, that should do nothing but help our strength of schedule. Finding a way to win, win and advance. We’re kind of in that playoff mentality right now.
"Got a lot of goals left in front of us, and I’m not going to shy away from it with the guys. It’s reality. You work your tail off for 11 months to make November significant, and obviously it’s significant for us right now.”