Few expected the Wildcats to be in this position when the season began, but here they are, preparing for their biggest rival with a New Year's Day bowl berth on the line. A win over the free-falling Illini in Saturday's regular-season finale at Ryan Field would mean intriguing potential berths in the Gator Bowl or perhaps even the Outback Bowl.
"The bottom line is we have to go 1-0 this week," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "The other stuff will take care of itself. It's out of our control."
Earning a bowl berth has become old hat at Northwestern, which is a testament to how far the program has come under Gary Barnett, Randy Walker and Fitzgerald. But the Wildcats (8-3 overall, 4-3 Big Ten) haven't won a bowl game since 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, the Polaroid camera was introduced, the average home cost $7.450 and gas was 17 cents a gallon.
An appearance in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., Outback Bowl in Tampa or the Capital One Bowl in Orlando would mean an SEC opponent. The Buffalo Wild Wings bowl is held at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. That game would pit NU against the third seed from the Big 12 after BCS choices are made and might provide an easier path to a landmark victory, but exposure is what's most coveted.
The Fiesta Bowl kicks off at 9:15 p.m. on Dec. 29. The Outback-and-Gator bowls begin at 11 a.m. on Jan. 1 while the Capital One Bowl starts at noon on New Year's Day. The New Years Day games are preferable because they mean expanded viewership, better marketing opportunities and the ability to reach more potential recruits.
"If you take a look at how our fans have traveled over my four opportunities to lead our team to bowl games, it has been outstanding," Fitzgerald said. "We've sold all of our tickets. We've got a pretty attractive resume but you want to be hot going into selection Sunday and how to be hot is to win out in November. Obviously, we came up a play short [against Michigan] in Ann Arbor. We won a big game last week [against Michigan State] and this is a huge opportunity for us this Saturday not only to beat our rival in Illinois but to finish the season on a very strong note and add to our resume."