Northwestern is headed to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. for a Jan. 1 bowl game against Mississippi State. Should fans be disappointed? Two sportswriters weigh in.
Yes By Steven Goldstein
It’s a word that dominates Northwestern athletics, more so now than ever.
The Wildcats seem to live in a land of perpetual what ifs, with season after season marked by a few nail-biting finishes and controversial plays. 2012’s football team was certainly no different, as Northwestern’s three losses came with three fourth-quarter leads and a combined scoring margin of just 19 points.
So, it makes sense that a lingering sense of “almost” pervaded Sunday’s bowl selections.
Initially, there were reports of the BCS No. 20 ‘Cats landing in Tampa for the Outback Bowl, a prestigious game that pits the Big Ten’s third-ranked member against a top SEC program. Then came the news that Northwestern could edge out Legends division champion Nebraska for a spot in the Capital One Bowl. Then came Jim Delany.
The conference commissioner and several Big Ten officials allegedly pressured the Capital One Bowl’s selection committee to skirt NU and choose the Cornhuskers, fearing that the conference’s runner-up would plummet down the bowl chain after a 70-31 thumping in Saturday’s Big Ten title game.
Now, the Wildcats fall past both the Capital One Bowl and the Outback Bowl, landing in Jacksonville for a showdown with Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. It’s an undeniable drop-off, and Northwestern fans have every right to feel disappointed.
True, this was a team that wasn’t supposed to do much in 2012, after seeing the departure of program staples Dan Persa, Drake Dunsmore, Al Netter and Jeremy Ebert in the spring. Coming off a six-win 2011 and lacking an established quarterback under center, few if any saw the Wildcats finishing with a 9-3 record and a top-25 ranking.
And yes, losses are losses. There’s no need to rehash the close endings of the Michigan and Nebraska games. To selection committees, an “almost” is still marked down as an L.
But settling for the Gator Bowl puts a damper on a successful season. With enough offensive firepower to generate a ratings-friendly game and a passionate fan base capable of turning huge profits, Northwestern would be a natural fit for a more touted and nationally recognized bowl.
Topping the 8-4 Bulldogs doesn’t do much for this program’s budding reputation. The Wildcats will be vying for their first bowl win in more than 50 years, but just how much prestige comes with beating a team that lost by three scores in four of its final five games? Mississippi State enters the Gator Bowl off a 41-24 loss to Ole Miss, a team that struggled to stay above .500 for most of the year.
Falling to the Gator Bowl signals a lack of national recognition and halts a chance to improve NU’s gridiron reputation. Plus, who’s to say that the ‘Cats wouldn’t stay competitive with Georgia in Orlando, or South Carolina in Tampa? Northwestern lives by the ground game, boasts a reliable offensive line and ranks 18th in FBS run defense. That’s the formula for success against the physical SEC.
Yes, the stands at EverBank Field will have a healthy dose of purple come January 1st. And yes, playing in the Gator Bowl is an honor that Pat Fitzgerald and Co. will embrace with open arms. But there’s still a feeling that the Wildcats almost had a chance at something really special.
No By Danny Moran
Had it been announced prior to the start of the 2012 season that Northwestern would be playing in Florida on Jan. 1, 2013, there would have been no griping Facebook statuses or angry Twitter rants to follow.
Fresh off of a disappointing 6-7 season, the Wildcat roster was filled with question marks entering the year, which only multiplied after their disastrous near-collapse in the opener at Syracuse.
As much as it seemed like Nebraska’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad non-performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship was on Saturday, the ‘Cats did not get an invitation to the Capital One Bowl, despite what some sources said as recently as Saturday night.
Honestly though, there is not much anyone should have expected from a tease like the Capital One Bowl. Their recent campaign to get fans of potential teams to pine for the bowl committee’s affections was only bound to leave Northwestern’s fans disgruntled.
Not to sound like a jilted lover, but there is nothing more special about the Capital One Bowl. Quick: Who played in the last three Capital One Bowls? Too hard? Alright, then just tell me who won.
Furthermore, any prestige surrounding this bowl went out the window as soon as it traded in the “Florida Citrus” name for the bank whose name it currently bears. Minus the four BCS bowls and the national championship, I no longer buy the argument that any bowl bears more prestige than the other since each ones like the Florida Citrus Bowl began completely offering up their names to the highest bidder. That is exactly why there was a chance that the banner for Northwestern’s first bowl win in over 60 years could have read “Ticket City” or “Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.” The Capital One Bowl set that trend in motion.
A more legitimate complaint about not making the Capital One Bowl is the amount of money it generates for the participating schools. As of last season, schools playing in the Gator Bowl each earned $2.7 million, a distant cry from the $4.5 million per team offered up by Capital One. But this season, that amount has been upped to $3.5 million per team, narrowing the difference in payout between the two bowls from $1.8 million to $1 million. That means it has never been more financially advantageous for a team to play in the Gator Bowl than it will be for both Northwestern and Mississippi State when they face off in 2013.
ESPN has denigrated this game as “less-than-marquee.” This move seems a bit counterintuitive considering the game will be airing on ESPN 2.
Reports indicate that Big Ten officials pressured the Capital One Bowl selection committee to pick Nebraska in spite of their stinky performance on the national stage. As sleazy as this may have been (assuming it’s true), the Wildcats had their chance to get the upper hand on the Cornhuskers come bowl selection time back in October. That is when the ‘Cats blew their second fourth quarter double-digit lead of the year, falling 29-28 in their one opportunity to settle this on the field.
As tough as that loss was for Northwestern fans to take at the time, all Nebraska’s improbable comeback has earned them is the right to be javelin-catchers when they play Georgia, who was one non-catch away from being in the national championship game. Going from one play from at the title to being out of the BCS all together will surely have them in a foul mood.
But they won’t be pouncing on Northwestern, who will instead have the much more manageable task of knocking off Mississippi State. The Bulldogs started the year 7-0 but have dropped four of their last five games – and their eight wins are hollow. Each of their four wins in the SEC has come against head coaches who are currently unemployed. Their non-conference schedule was the easiest in the country among BCS-conference teams. Mitt Romney had tougher challengers in the Republican primary.
The most important bowl result for the Wildcats is victory. If Northwestern knocks off Mississippi State on Jan. 1st, each Northwestern student will feel the type of joy not known since 1949. And it will not matter whether that moment happens in Jacksonville, Tampa or Orlando.
Wait. Is there a difference?