As much as the Bearcats are hurting after Saturday's crushing 21-20 loss to Missouri Western in the MIAA title game, the release of Sunday's Division II playoff bracket had to lift their spirits at least a little bit.
Facing the possibility of being on the road throughout the playoffs, the Bearcats only dropped to No. 4 in Super Region 3 and will host a first round playoff game against No. 5 seed Harding (Ark.) Saturday at noon at Bearcat Stadium.
Despite having one more loss, Northwest (9-2, 8-2) stayed ahead of Harding (9-1) in the rankings because of a superior strength of schedule that ranks No. 1 in the region.
The first round home game is a first for Northwest since 2010 when they hosted Missouri Western in the first round and won 28-24.
First round opponents each of the past two years, Northwest and Western are located on opposite sides of the bracket and won't meet again unless both make it to the quarterfinals.
MIAA champions for the first time since 2003, Western (10-1) drew the No. 3 seed and hosts No. 6 seed Minnesota-Duluth in the first round.
This is arguably a tougher first round game than Northwest's.
Duluth won the national title in 2008 and 2010, while Harding is making its first-ever appearance in the Division II playoffs.
Harding is a triple-option team that finished second in the Great American Conference behind Henderson State, the No. 2 seed in the region.
The Bison and Northwest share one common opponent—East Central (Okla.). Northwest beat East Central 33-3 in the regular season opener.
Harding claimed a 31-14 win in week four.
The winner of Northwest/Harding gets No. 1 seed Minnesota St.-Mankato (11-0) in the second round Nov. 24. GAC champion Henderson State awaits the winner of Western/Duluth in the other semifinal game.