Case made

Two weeks ago, sitting at 5-4 with two road games on the docket, Northwestern's bowl prospects looked just a bit wobbly. But now, after downing No. 4 Iowa and Illinois, Northwestern is nearly certain to go bowling yet again. Purple Reign takes a look at what these last two wins did for the Cats' case, which is all but closed.

A few weeks ago, Purple Reign ran an article speculating about Northwestern's bowl prospects should the Cats end up hitting -- but not exceeding -- the requisite six-win plateau for bowl eligibility.

It seemed at the time that six wins was reasonably likely for the Wildcats. They had three games left, against Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin*. When that article ran, Iowa was undefeated and ranked No. 4 in the nation (BCS rankings), plus the game was in Iowa City. Of course, that was the Cats' sixth win. And really, the Cats were likely to go bowling after that showing.

* In that article, there was a mention of how stout Wisconsin was at home. Alas, the game isn't at Wisconsin but at NU. So...if you didn't ignore that at the time, now you know.

But to remove any doubt, NU went out and beat Illinois last week, as well. And if there were any sweaty palms about the bowl outlook after the Iowa win, those were effectively dried off after the Illinois win. BCS conference teams with seven wins pretty much always -- always -- go to bowls. There would have to be loads of extenuating circumstances for a seven-win team to get locked out, especially one that could do no worse than .500 in the Big Ten and had beaten a Top 10 team on the road.

Some people have noticed that Northwestern is on a winning streak. There is circumstantial evidence for this: NU's scores are appearing higher on ESPN.com's and SI.com's college football scoreboards. But there is also hard evidence: The Cats received a trio of votes in the AP poll this week, something that seemed an unlikely possibility a month ago. The second-longest winning streak in the conference, coupled with the press that comes with knocking off one of the remaining undefeateds, will get you some attention.

And a bowl bid. There just isn't precedent for a seven-win, BCS conference team not going to a bowl. Now, an argument could be made that there is now so much parity among the lower conferences -- you know, your MACs and Mid-Cons and company -- that more teams like, say, 8-2 Temple or 7-3 Ohio will snag bids. And that may be true. But seven wins is still a comfortable place to be sitting. And that's where the Cats are.

However, one AP headline for the game story of the Illinois game interestingly read, "Northwestern beats Illinois to help bowl cause." Help, as though the win didn't lock up a bowl bid. Maybe it's not set in stone, but seven wins will almost certainly get NU in. Not to count our chickens yet, a practice that came back to bite last week, but seriously, to say the that beating Illinois acted to "help bowl cause" seems a bit of an understatement. Seems.

The only -- absolutely only -- thing that could cost NU a bowl bid is this: The strength of schedule. Like that previously mentioned article discusses, SOS is important, and NU's SOS is still pretty meager. It will surely be bolstered by this week's visit from the Badgers, who are currently ranked somewhere around No. 15 (depending on your poll of choice).

While there is indeed a historical link between bowl bids and strength of schedule -- remember 2006? -- there are two caveats that may make NU's strength of schedule totally moot. (Well, three caveats if you include winning nabbing that eighth win this weekend.) First, there are more bowls now than there were in 2006, when, like the article said, SOS had a huge impact on teams like NU and Kansas that won six games and didn't go to a bowl. Sure, it's only two additional bowls and four additional participants, but that's not nothing. Plus, the SOS correlation was either damning or helpful when looking at six-win teams. Not seven-win (or eight-win) teams like NU.

Still, about the SOS...even after the past few weeks, NU has the 103rd rated schedule in the nation; it was No. 114 heading into the Iowa game. And while you can argue with the exactitude of these rankings, the schedule still doesn't look that good* from any angle.

*Towson has two wins, is riding a five-game losing streak and is ranked No. 193 out of 246 teams in the increasingly-ubiquitous, computer-based Sagarin Rankings. Eastern Michigan -- 0-10 but with a tougher schedule -- is ranked No. 180. Miami (Ohio), now 1-10, is ranked No. 141, and two-win Syracuse is ranked No. 95. And the non-Iowa conference wins came against the Nos. 8, 9 and 11 teams in the Big Ten.

That is the only thing that could possibly, in a million years, if hell freezes over, lock the Cats out of a bowl. But with seven wins, people aren't likely to care about a low SOS. And with eight wins, with Ws over Iowa and Wisconsin in the final three weeks, no one could care. The Cats would be going bowling.

And really, for the first time all season, regardless of what happens against the Badgers, it's a safe, seemingly jinx-free bet to say the Cats will go bowling.


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