Right now, we're pretty sure we know two things: 1) Northwestern will be playing in a bowl. 2) Northwestern will be going to Florida to play in previously mentioned bowl. The action over the next two weeks will be the deciding factor regarding where Northwestern will end up on January 1. Here are the scenarios that determine in which bowl game Northwestern will play.
But first, here are the rules that lay out the choices that the Capital One and Outback Bowls have to make. Assuming that only one B1G team makes a BCS bowl, both of these bowls can select any team unless that team has two more losses or two fewer wins than another available B1G school. This rule has been confirmed by Jerry Palm in what was a very exciting moment for me on Twitter. However, this rule does not apply to losses in the conference championship game, according to Adam Rittenberg. Basically, a 9-3 Northwestern team must make the Outback Bowl over a 7-6 Wisconsin, but not over an 8-5 Wisconsin.
Getting to the Gator Bowl is the easiest scenario to figure out, and also potentially the most heartbreaking. A loss to Illinois on Saturday will almost guarantee Northwestern a Gator Bowl birth, while also torturing our oft-battered souls on a whole new level. (Note: If this happens, it is possible, though unlikely, that the Gator Bowl will choose a 7-5 Minnesota team fresh off a win against Michigan State over an 8-4 Northwestern, dropping Northwestern to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.)
Another way to get Northwestern to the Gator Bowl is to have Wisconsin win either its final regular season game against Penn State or the B1G championship game. The Outback Bowl could (and likely would) choose an 8-5 Nebraska over a 9-3 Northwestern, though its definitely not a guarantee. A Wisconsin win in the championship game, however, would almost certainly bump Northwestern to the Gator Bowl, as the 'Cats would suddenly drop to fourth in the pecking order behind Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan.
Gator Bowl rooting interests: Boo Northwestern! OR Yay Wisconsin!
Basically, Northwestern goes to the Outback Bowl if everything happens the way it should happen. It is generally accepted that Northwestern has no chance at jumping Nebraska or Michigan in bowl positioning (even though Northwestern will likely finish with a better record than Michigan.) If Northwestern beats Illinois and Wisconsin loses out, Northwestern will be going to Tampa, allowing us all to relive the 2010 Outback Bowl in all its glory (I will understand if you take five minutes before continuing to read to allow yourself to recover from being forced to think about that game.)
Outback Bowl rooting interests: Yay Northwestern AND Boo Wisconsin!
Capital One Bowl
This is where the fun begins. For all the optimists out there who really want Northwestern to get slaughtered by Florida, Alabama or Georgia, start paying attention now.
A quick primer on BCS at-large eligibility: Teams are only eligible for an at-large bid if they have at least nine wins and are ranked in the top 14 of the BCS rankings. Each conference can only have one at-large bid. There is a separate set of rules for non-AQ eligibility, but those aren't relevant this year.
A lot of things need to happen for Northwestern to make the Capital One Bowl, most of which involve getting Michigan into a BCS at-large spot. So, for starters, Michigan needs to beat Ohio State on Saturday. If you have stopped chuckling to yourself at that possibility, the next step is that enough coaches and Harris Poll voters need to realize that Ohio State is actually pretty good, ensuring that Michigan will make a significant jump in the polls (Ohio State isn't eligible to receive votes in those polls and it wouldn't surprise me if those voters are completely ignorant of how good that team is.) If Michigan jumps into the BCS top 14, then they would be eligible to be selected, though it still might not happen.
Additionally, for the B1G to get two BCS teams, Nebraska needs to win the championship game. A Nebraska loss to Iowa or Wisconsin would guarantee that they have no chance at an at-large bid, as they currently sit at #14 in the BCS rankings. Therefore, a Nebraska B1G championship is also necessary for this scenario to play out.
But that's not all: other teams will likely need to lose to clear the path for Michigan. The prevailing opinion right now is that the ten BCS spots will go to the six conference champions, (7) Notre Dame, (8) an SEC at-large team, (9) a Pac-12 at-large team (either Oregon, Stanford or Oregon State depending on this weekend's action) and (10) either a Big 12 or ACC at-large team. You'll notice that none of those spots are currently reserved for a B1G team, most likely because the B1G sucks. Therefore, for Michigan to have a shot, both the Big 12 and ACC at-large potentials need to be taken care of. This would involve both an Oklahoma loss to either Oklahoma State or TCU and a Clemson loss to South Carolina. To avoid other potential whammy scenarios, Kansas State needs to beat Texas and Florida State must beat Georgia Tech in the ACC championship.
So, in a nutshell, here is the necessary path for Northwestern to maybe make the Capital One Bowl.
If all of this happens, MAYBE Michigan cracks the top 14 and MAYBE they get selected to be a BCS at-large team. If that happens, Northwestern makes the Capital One Bowl and we all rejoice while also crapping ourselves at the thought of the ensuing massacre.
Capital One rooting interests: See above. I just did that for you.
I hope this makes sense. I also hope I'm right. It'd be pretty embarrassing if I wasn't.
Quick Update: We have confusion. According to Teddy Greenstein, a 9-3 Northwestern will necessarily be picked over an 8-5 Wisconsin team for Capital One or Outback. Feel free to believe who you want. So what would this mean? Basically, what you think. If Northwestern beats Illinois and Wisconsin beats Penn State but loses in the championship game, Outback Bowl is happening. Everything else is pretty much the same.