I just returned from a one-day trip into the heart of Michigan country, Ann Arbor. I wore, as I often do, a purple Northwestern hat, but not with the intention of making any point about my school. It’s just a hat that I’ve been wearing for many years–decades, even–and am comfortable with. But I was representing the Wildcats, all the same.
The Big Ten played its first football championship game tonight, and now it’s on to the bowl season. Michigan will be back in one, after an unusual hiatus for them and their fans, but Northwestern’s status is unclear at this time. They won six games, which makes them “bowl eligible” but doesn’t assure them anything. Northwestern is going to have to appeal to some bowl game that wants to sell tickets, rather than put a good game on the field. All of these games are about money more than they are about competition.
Northwestern is a small, private school, and that means fewer students and alumni are available to buy tickets and travel to the game. A school like Michigan has a large student and alumni base, and so bowl games will fall all over themselves to bring Michigan to their party. Not so with Northwestern.
But on the other hand, Northwestern does have a pretty good record with selling their bowl allotment in years past. There are plenty of alums–myself included–who remember when we had to throw marshmallows at each other during the home games to keep our attention away from how awful the team on the field was. So playing in a bowl game is–and always will be–a validation of how much progress has been made since then.
There’s a problem, though. NU (and it’s not NW, because Northwestern is all one word, and University is another word) has been to many bowl games (eight, to be exact) and lost them all. Their outgoing seniors have been to three bowl games, and haven’t won yet. They all want one more game, and if they get it, they sure won’t want to lose it. If they go, we’ll know where it is soon enough.
But there’s another Northwestern streak that’s coming into view again. The basketball team–which was just as dreadful as the football team was when I went there–has gotten better in recent years, but they haven’t yet received an invitation to the NCAA tournament. This is the de facto dividing line between the teams that had a successful season, and the teams who didn’t. And Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament before. Talk about a streak.
When it comes time to hand out the tournament bids in March, it’s all about “quality wins.” Who have you beat? When have you proven yourself to be one of the best teams in the country? Playing in the Big Ten, there’s rarely a shortage of quality opponents to point to on the schedule. Beating Wisconsin, or beating Michigan State, or beating Illinois (my favorite type of victories) usually helps to build a tournament portfolio, as it should.
But today’s game against Baylor is different. Baylor is unbeaten and ranked in the top ten of the weekly polls, but Northwestern hasn’t played them before. Beating a top ten opponent would be big all by itself. But doing it in December, before conference play even begins, would be even better.
This is a game that wouldn’t have been played ten years ago, when Northwestern played a soft non-conference schedule to take the sting out of the walloping they routinely got in conference play. But as a result of their successes over the past few years, they play with some bigger teams now. And beating those bigger teams–as Northwestern can do later on today–is the way to get the quality wins that will bring this NCAA-less streak to an end.