The Northwestern football team poses around the Land of Lincoln Trophy after beating Illinois. The 'Cats are hoping the trophy is one of only several to add to this season's trophy case. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

The Northwestern Wildcats have had one of their best football seasons in recent memory. Sitting at 6-1 and outright Big Ten West Champions for the second time in three years, the 14th ranked Wildcats will travel to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to take on No. 4 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the Wildcats, this is an opportunity to earn their third trophy in as many weeks should they win in Indianapolis, as they earned the Big Ten West crown and the Land of Lincoln trophy against Illinois in the last two.

Regardless of the outcome this weekend, the Wildcats will still have a final chance at earning a trophy in their bowl game in the final weeks of December or early January. The title game, however, will likely have a dramatic effect on where the ‘Cats end up.

How the ’Cats can sneak into the playoff

Northwestern linebacker Blake Gallagher slides after nabbing an interception. Despite a key loss to Michigan State, the 'Cats are still hoping for a chance to prove their stuff in the College Football Playoff. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Should Northwestern defeat the Buckeyes this weekend, the Wildcats will earn the Big Ten’s New Year’s Six (NY6) berth for the first time since 1995. The Wildcats would certainly leapfrog over the Buckeyes in the next edition of the College Football Playoff Rankings since they would own the head to head advantage, likely putting them in conversation for the College Football Playoff (CFP) itself.

The biggest hurdle the Wildcats would need to jump to reach the CFP in this scenario is No. 5 Texas A&M, should all the favorites win their games this weekend. The Aggies currently sit at 7-1, with a trip to Knoxville to face unranked Tennessee set to wrap up their regular season. On paper, the team’s would have similar resumes as they both have one loss and come from a power conference.

The Aggies, however, fell on the road to No. 1 Alabama, while the Wildcats suffered an inexplicable setback at unranked Michigan State. In addition, the selection committee has displayed a large skew towards the SEC this season, specifically seen through its ranking of two-loss No. 7 Florida and No. 8 Georgia ahead of one-loss Big Ten teams like No. 11 Indiana and No. 14 Northwestern.

Negativity aside, the Wildcats would have multiple advantages over the Aggies. Should the Wildcats prevail in Indianapolis, they would own two CFP top-25 wins: the Buckeyes on a neutral field and at No. 16 Iowa. The Aggies do own a home victory over No. 7 Florida, but they are likely to fall even further down the rankings if they lose to Alabama this weekend. The committee does take location of games into consideration, so this is a clear advantage for the Wildcats. They would have the added benefit of being conference champions, which the committee considers, while the Aggies would not have even appeared in their conference title game.

Furthermore, the committee has favored the Buckeyes this season, ranking them at number four despite only playing five games. For comparison, No. 13 USC also has the same 5-0 record as the Buckeyes, but the Trojans are still nine spots behind in the rankings.

If Northwestern were to beat the Buckeyes on Saturday, there clearly would be a lot of heated discussion over the final playoff spots both in the media and within the committee. If the Wildcats are selected to play in the CFP, it would likely be as the No. 4 seed, which would mean a trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl to face Alabama on New Year’s Day, where a trip to Miami for the National Championship would be at stake.

If the Wildcats fall short of the playoff, their NY6 bid would likely mean a trip to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl, where the winner of the PAC-12 Championship between USC and Oregon would await. Normally this matchup would occur at the Rose Bowl, but it is a part of the CFP this season, so the committee would have the flexibility to send the Wildcats to the Peach Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, or Cotton Bowl, but the latter is the most likely destination in this scenario.

The Wildcats’ playoff probability would likely skyrocket should No. 2 Notre Dame defeat No. 3 Clemson in the ACC Championship, and this is probably the only result from this weekend with dramatic CFP implications that would not fall under the umbrella of “total chaos.” Since both Clemson’s and Ohio State’s spots in the Top 4 could be up for grabs in this scenario, there would be room in the CFP for both Northwestern and Texas A&M.

The Wildcats and Aggies would likely be compared to two-loss Clemson and the two-loss Big 12 Champion, either No. 6 Iowa State or No. 10 Oklahoma, but this would not be as difficult of a decision for the committee. The group has never selected a two-loss team to the CFP, and it’s doubtful that this would be the time.

In Northwestern’s case, they would have just as many or more Top 25 wins than any of the other options as well as a conference title, making them an easy selection for the committee. In this scenario, the Wildcats could theoretically earn the No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the CFP. As the No. 3, this would likely mean a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl against Notre Dame on New Year’s Day.

Snap back to reality

Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher goes for the tackle against Michigan State. Unfortunately, the 29-20 loss may be too much for Northwestern to overcome. Photo Credit: Northwestern Athletics

While it is enjoyable to dream about Northwestern’s resume and CFP chances should they win the Big 10 Championship, the Wildcats will still receive a phenomenal bowl selection if Vegas projections hold true for Saturday. With Ohio State poised to earn a CFP spot with a win over Northwestern, the committee would likely select the highest ranked Big Ten team remaining to go to a NY6 Bowl Game. Although Indiana currently sits three spots ahead of Northwestern in this week’s CFP rankings in prime position to earn the NY6 bid, the Wildcats could potentially jump ahead of Indiana in Sunday’s final committee rankings if they put up a good fight against Ohio State. This likely would also result in a trip to the Cotton Bowl.

The most realistic outcome for the Wildcats as Big Ten runner-up would be a trip to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day or the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2, both highly respected bowl games. The Wildcats would face an SEC opponent, likely one of Florida, Auburn, Missouri, or Mississippi.

The worst case scenario for the Wildcats would be a trip to Phoenix for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 26–just a week after the Big Ten Championship–against a Big 12 opponent, likely West Virginia. This would be the next best option due to the cancellation of the Holiday Bowl, which Northwestern won in 2018. This would only happen if the committee put Iowa ahead of Northwestern in its final rankings and did not include a Big Ten team in the NY6 non-CFP games, as Indiana and Iowa would then earn the Citrus Bowl and Outback Bowl selections. Although plausible, it is still unlikely that Iowa would jump ahead of Northwestern despite both having two losses because the Wildcats own the head-to-head advantage.

The 'Cats are hoping their dominant performance in the Big Ten West, including key wins over Iowa and Wisconsin, will allow them to play in a New Year's Six Bowl. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

There clearly are a lot of potential outcomes for the Wildcats beyond this week. No matter how the cookie crumbles, Northwestern fans have to consider the season a large success after the misery that was 2019. Many of these bowl games could present the first opportunity for the Wildcats to play in front of fans this season. Hopefully the Wildcats can build on their regular season success in the postseason.

The ’Cats have been working all year for this. Let’s see where they end up.